Monday, October 5, 2015

Ancient Medicine & Nobel.

Three scientists from Ireland, Japan and China have won the Nobel prize in medicine for discoveries that helped doctors fight malaria and infections caused by roundworm parasites.

 Tu working with Prof Lou Zhicen in the 1950s. Photograph: AP

Youyou Tu discovered one of the most effective treatments for malaria while working on a secret military project during China’s Cultural Revolution.Malaria was traditionally treated by chloroquine or quinine, but with declining success.

 By the late 1960s, efforts to eradicate Malaria had failed and the disease was on the rise. At that time, Youyou Tu in China turned to traditional herbal medicine to tackle the challenge of developing novel Malaria therapies. From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in Malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the Malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans (Figure 4). Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the Malaria parasites at an early stage of their development, which explains its unprecedented potency in the treatment of severe Malaria.

This was observational medicine at its best at a time when there was little understanding of parasites, biochemistry and basic sciences; and it was not tainted by the modern drive to make money!

Figure 4: Youyou Tu searched ancient literature on herbal medicine in her quest to develop novel malaria therapies. The plant Artemisia annua turned out to be an interesting candidate, and Tu developed a purification procedure, which rendered the active agent, Artemisinin, a drug that is remarkably effective against Malaria.

An Interview with Tu Youyou
2011 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award 

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