Tu Youyou and the Nobel Prize by Elisabeth Hsu

When I interviewed Professor Tu Youyou in 2005 — in her office at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, the work unit within which she had spent her entire life after completing a doctorate in chemistry at Beida (the University of Beijing) — I did not expect her to receive any further awards, and certainly neither the Lasker nor the Nobel prize. It was not that she was not already an award holder or that her achievements did not strike me as worthy of a Nobel Prize. Quite the contrary. But she was a woman and a scientist of Maoist China.

In the early 1970s Professor Tu Youyou and her team had used a standard Western cold extraction method for producing an Artemisia annua plant extract which they fed to malaria-infected mice, thereby establishing its antimalarial activity. In 1975 Professor Tu Youyou made crucial inroads into research on this extract’s antimalarial principle, a chemical substance known as qinghaosu in Chinese and Artemisinin in English. Through what her colleagues have called “clever chemistry”, she identified key aspects of its molecular structure. She therewith initiated research into a new class of antimalarials which, thanks to a heat-sensitive peroxide bridge, are able to attack the parasitic plasmodia in the blood stream by causing an “explosion” of the infected red blood cells. This results in fever clearance in a few hours with hardly any side effects. 

After this interview I realized that I would not have the nerve to research how Artemisinin was discovered, and why it took so long for the WHO to acknowledge its efficacy.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.