Professor Youyou Tu, a Chinese scientist and her team “transformed an ancient Chinese healing method into the most powerful antimalarial medicine currently available”, according to the US-based Lasker Foundation. It was in 1967 that this team began its research work on instructions from the then Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai of China. The name given to this research work was “Project 523″. The team scoured and studied the ancient Chinese Literature and texts and chose more than 2,000 Chinese herbal preparations. Among them, about 640 herbal preparations gave them hopes. They prepared 380 extracts using more than 200 herbs and tested them on mice. But, the results of these tests were not encouraging at all.
The unrelenting scientists continued their research and their perseverance led to the identification of an extract from a plant called Qinghao. This plant is also known as Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood. This extract showed inhibition against parasite growth. But, there faced discouragement again. There were lower levels of inhibition once again. Professor Tu studied an ancient 1700-year old Chinese text, “The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments” by Ge Hong and found out that due to heating, the efficacy of the extract came down. So, she switched to an extraction method that was done at a lower temperature.
But, the toxicity of the extract still remained. So, the team removed the acidic portion of the extract that did not have any anti-malarial qualities. The remaining extract was named as “extract number 191″ and it was very effective when used on monkeys and mice.
Though the government and the research team have been keeping all this work under wraps, it was in March 1972 that Professor Tu presented the results of her work at a project 523 meeting held at Nanging. During the same year, the team identified the active chemical compound and named it as “Qinghasou”. Throughout the world, this compound came to be known as “artemisinin”.
Many patients were administered this extract and the results were dramatic. Those who were treated with this extract got better more quickly than patients treated with chloroquine. Subsequent researches proved that there should be a combination therapy along with artemisinin to prevent recurrence. This combination therapy was necessary because artemisinin levels in the body dropped quickly and also to help patients develop resistance to malaria.
In a 1984 report in the famous medical journal, Lancet, it was pointed out that “Qinghaosu alone had a rapid rate of parasite clearance, no side effects, but a high recrudescence rate”. So, Professor Tu continued with her research and in an October 1981 speech at a U.N. sponsored meeting, she spoke about some of the more powerful derivatives of artemisinin. She had modified artemisinin and created a compound that had 10 times more punch. This compound reduced the risk of recurrence of malaria because it could remain in the body for a longer duration.
Professor Tu and her team completely transformed the malaria treatment and this has benefited millions of patients throughout the world. The Lasker Foundation that has given its prestigious award to Professor Tu has observed that she has combined the riches of the ageless Chinese heritage and traditional practices with modern techniques to benefit the entire mankind. She richly deserves such lavish praises.