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Tu first Chinese to win Nobel Prize in Medicine


Shan Juan and Cheng Yingqi

Updated: 2015-10-05

Tu first Chinese to win Nobel Prize in Medicine

William Campbell, Satoshi Omura and Tu Youyou jointly won the 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine for their work against parasitic diseases. [Photo/CFP]

Eighty-five-year old Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou became China's first medicine Nobel laureate when it was announced she was one of three scientists awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work in developing effective drugs against parasitic diseases.

William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura were recognized for their novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites.

While Tu was honored for developing Artemisinin, a drug therapy for malaria that has saved millions of lives across the globe, especially in the developing world, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institute disclosed on its website on Monday.

Tu, a Chinese trained pharmacologist and a researcher at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing, would like to go to Oslo, Norway in December to receive her award in person, according to Cao Hongxin, the science and technology department head of the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and former director of the academy.

"She sounded calm and said she has received lots of congratulatory calls," Cao told China Daily on Monday after he telephoned Tu to congratulate her.

"It's an overdue honor for Tu and the world's recognition of TCM," he said.

Tu was honored for her work in isolating the active ingredient from the plant Artemisia apiacea Hance that protects against the malaria parasite and developing an extraction method for its therapeutic use.

"It was inspired by the ancient TCM classic Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies by TCM master Ge Hong of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317- 340)," Cao said.

The book says coldly squeezed southernwood juice could treat malaria.

Her great findings spearheaded the exploration for the modernization of TCM as well, he added.

In 1969, Tu started to chair a government project aimed at eradicating malaria.

"The task I took on was to conduct research for a new drug from traditional Chinese herbal medicine to treat malaria. Back then, we needed a totally new structured antimalarial to deal with resistance to the existing drugs. So with that background, I accepted the task assigned by the government," Tu said in an earlier report by China Radio International.

Tu and her colleagues experimented with 380 extracts in 2,000 candidate recipes before they finally succeeded in obtaining the pure substance qinghaosu, later known as artemisinin, which became the standard regimen for malaria in the World Health Organization's catalog of essential medicines.

"Your discovery of artemisinin not only explored a new research direction for the treatment of malaria - which has significant scientific meaning - it also directly benefited tens of thousands of people. Your winning the Nobel Prize is the pride of the whole Chinese science community, which will inspire more Chinese scientists," said Bai Chunli, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in a congratulatory letter sent to Tu on Monday night.

In 2011, Tu was awarded the Lasker Debakey Clinical Medical Research Award, commonly referred to as "America's Nobel Prize".

Known as a herald of the Nobel, many expected Tu to win the Noble that year.

"The prize finally came," Cao said, "more than 40 years after her findings. But back then, China was not as open as it is today and she had no opportunities to publish her findings in international science journals."

"Tu's breakthrough in winning the Nobel Prize in a natural science is the pride of the whole nation and the whole Chinese scientific community," said Zhou Dejin, spokesman of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China's national research body that comprises of more than one hundred research institutes, universities and research branches.

"The achievement of discovering artemisinin was made in 1970s, but it only received International recognition in later years, which suggests that we might have more achievements that have reached the Nobel Prize level that have not been recognized," Zhou said.

One example he gave was the synthesis of crystalline bovine insulin, which was developed by Chinese scientists in the 1960s.

New discoveries such as neutrino oscillation and nano energy are all believed to be promising contenders.

"The modern sciences originated in the Western countries, but Chinese scientists have been exploring with great efforts since we opened our door to the outside world in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Although some of our achievements have not been recognized by the Nobel Assembly, we do not feel that we are really that far behind," Zhou said.

"Now we have Tu winning the first Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, we should be more confident that Chinese scientists will make more high-level breakthroughs in the future," he said.

Besides Tu, China also has other promising Nobel Prize candidates inspired by TCM according to Cao.

Chinese scientists Wang Zhenyi and Chen Zhu integrated the use of arsenic trioxide with Western approaches for treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia, which dramatically improves the patients’ survival rate.

Contact the writer at shanjuan@chinadaily.com.cn and chengyingqi@chinadaily.com.cn

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