Tu Youyou became one of three scientists to win this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine. She has concocted an antimalarial treatment, yet remarkably, the public had no idea about Tu’s lifesaving achievement until recently.
She is an 84-year-old Chinese pharmacologist and her backstory is truly incredible. Honest. I’m not bullshitting you here…
In 1967 Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. He was losing too many soldiers fighting in the jungle of Vietnam. After Chinese scientists failed to find a cure using synthetic chemicals, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine.
Ms Youyou was a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. She was hand-picked by the government to find a herbal cure.
“The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life,” Ms Youyou told New Scientist.
She had three assistants and the work was painstaking. She reviewed thousands of forms of traditional Chinese remedies, testing them day in day out.
Her team would refer to texts that were written 1600 years ago (roughly 400 AD) to create their natural cure.
The team isolated one active compound in wormwood, artemisinin, which appeared to battle malaria-friendly parasites. The boiling was a bit tricky because it was done differently 1600 years ago, but they nailed that in the end.
Ms Youyou then had to be confident in testing the treatment in humans, she tried it on herself first (nobel action by a nobel winner), and after enduring no side effects she arranged clinical trials.
Participants were cleared of the disease within little more than a day.
40 years later her discovery still remains the fastest acting anti-malarial treatment in the world.
Ms Youyou’s role in unlocking artemisinin was shrouded in secret, until researchers looked into the drug’s history and realised she deserved credit. She had previously published papers anonymously, what an incredibly a modest lady! She also shared the award with two other colleagues.
Irish-born professor William C Campbell received recognition for his work…
And Japan’s Satoshi Omura was also part of the team!
Tu Youyou has won a Nobel Prize in medicine despite the fact she does not hold a medical degree or a PhD.