Chinese scientist wins award for life-saving discovery of artemisinin

Ancient wisdom and modern techniques were combined to discover the key component of today’s most effective malaria treatments

23 Sep 2011

Dr Youyou, formerly of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing, received the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award in New York on 23 September for her discovery of artemisinin. The Lasker Awards are America’s answer to the Nobel Prize for medicine with each winner receiving a $250,000 prize.

Dr Youyou and her team began work to discover a new treatment for malaria during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960s under orders from the Chinese Government. At the time, the first global malaria eradication campaign was failing and grinding to a halt as the parasite was developing widespread resistance to the then treatment of choice – chloroquine.

The Chinese government was motivated not only by the need to find a new medicine to replace chloroquine and tackle malaria within its borders but also by a call for help from Vietnam. North and South Vietnam were at war – both with each other and the malaria parasite.

In line with the ideology of the Cultural Revolution to draw on the existing wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine, Dr Youyou used ancient texts and folk remedies as her starting point. In doing so she came across a 2000-year-old document, the first to mention qinghao – otherwise known as artemisinin. Further reading took her to note quinghao’s healing power for malaria and offered inspiration for a novel extraction process to maximise yield and efficacy.

Dr Youyou and her team then went on to validate their findings in patients and to modify artemisinin to generate the compound dihydroartemisinin, which she found had ten times the killing power of artemisinin and reduced the risk of reinfection. The rest is history.

Today, artemisinin and its derivatives are the most efficacious and fast-acting antimalarials known to man and the key components of the WHO recommended first-line treatment for uncomplicated malaria – Artemisinin Combination Therapy (ACT). The first drug to emerge from the MMV pipeline in partnership with Novartis was a dispersible ACT. Two other ACTs are awaiting European Medicines Agency approval.

“Artemisinin combination therapies are the mainstay of malaria treatment. The world owes a lot to this amazing discovery,” said Dr Tim Wells, MMV’s Chief Scientific Officer. “We are continuing work along these lines by improving on artesunate with our new synthetic peroxide OZ439 which offers the hope of a single-dose cure. Also, we continue the search for new medicines based on clinically confirmed herbal remedies.”

 “It is clear that Tu’s insight and vision have saved millions of lives, particularly in the developing world, and continues to yield long-term medical benefits in the ongoing fight against this deadly disease,” the The Lasker Foundation said.