Tu Youyou is a Chinese pharmaceutical chemist and malariologist who is behind the discovery of artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, drugs used for treating malaria. It is considered as the breakthrough in twentieth-century tropical medicine and has managed to save countless lives in South China, Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.
For her work in discovering the drugs to treat malaria, Youyou received the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and the 2011 Lasker Award in clinical medicine. She was awarded these honors alongside William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura. She is the first female citizen of the People’s Republic of China to win a Nobel Prize and also the first Chinese person to be awarded the Lasker Award. Let’s know more about how she reached these heights.
Tu Youyou’s education and research
Youyou went to Peking University Medical School in 1955. She graduated from Beijing Medical University School of Pharmacy and kept on researching Chinese herbal medicine in the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. She was later trained for around three years in traditional Chinese medicine.
After graduating, Tu worked at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which is now known as the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing. She continued her research in the 1960s and 70s throughout China’s Cultural Revolution, when scientists were considered to be one of the nine black categories in society as per the Maoist theory.
Research on finding an anti-malaria drug
Tu was appointed as the head of the Project 523 research group in 1969. The research group was created to set up a secret drug for malaria in 1967. First, she was sent to Hainan to study patients who were suffering from the disease.
Scientists across the globe screened more than 240,000 compounds but didn’t find much success. In 1969, Tu came up with the idea of screening Chinese herbs. At first, Tu investigated the Chinese medical classics and gathered all her findings in a notebook named A Collection of Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria that had 640 prescriptions.
Her team determined that one compound was effective, which was used for “intermittent fevers,” a known symptom of malaria. At first, it wasn’t very effective as the team extracted it with boiling water. Youyou learned that a low-temperature extraction process can come in handy to isolate an effective antimalarial substance from the plant.
The discovery of the anti-malaria drug
She later realized that hot water damages the active ingredient in the plant. She then proposed a technique with the help of low-temperature ether to extract the effective compound. This method worked when tested on mice and monkeys.
In 1972, Youyou and her team managed to obtain the pure substance and called it qinghaosu or artemisinin, which went on to save countless lives, especially in the developing world. She studies the pharmacology of the drug, and her group determined the chemical structure of artemisinin. In 1973, Tu Youyou accidentally synthesized dihydroartemisinin while trying to confirm the carbonyl group in the artemisinin molecule.