Know the scientist: Tu Youyou


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Tu Youyou is a Chinese scientist, known for her isolation of the antimalarial substance artemisinin. She won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine (shared with Irish-born American parasitologist William Campbell and Japanese microbiologist Omura Satoshi).

Tu was born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China, in 1930. A tuberculosis infection at 16 interrupted her education for two years, but inspired her to pursue medical research. In 1955, Tu graduated from Beijing Medical University School of Pharmacy and continued her research on Chinese herbal medicine in the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. After graduation, Tu worked at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing.

In 1967, during the Vietnam War, North Vietnam requested China to help battle malaria, which was affecting its soldiers. Tu was appointed to lead Project 523, a secret effort to discover a treatment for malaria. Tu and her team pored over ancient Chinese medical texts to identify plants with appropriate medicinal value. Out of 640 plants identified, 380 extracts from about 200 plant species were zeroed in. The target was to rid malaria-causing Plasmodium parasites from the blood of infected people.

 

In 1971, after refining the extraction process, Tu and colleagues successfully isolated a nontoxic extract from sweet wormwood that effectively eliminated Plasmodium parasites from mice and monkeys. In 1972, they isolated the active compound in the extracts, which they named qinghaosu, or artemisinin. Tu and two colleagues tested the substance on themselves before testing them on 21 patients in the Hainan Province. All of them recovered.

Her work was not published in English until 1979. The World Health Organisation invited Tu to present her findings on the global stage in 1981. It took two decades, but finally the WHO recommended artemisinin combination therapy as the first line of defence against malaria.

In 2011 she received the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her contributions to the discovery of artemisinin. When she won the Nobel in 2015, Tu became the first Chinese Nobel laureate in physiology or medicine and the first female citizen of the People’s Republic of China to receive a Nobel Prize in any category.



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