Profile: Fighting malaria the Chinese way

Nobel laureate Tu Youyou, who led the discovery of the malaria drug artemisinin, was on Sunday presented the Medal of the Republic as the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary.

Tu, who was born in December 1930, has been dedicated to finding a cure for malaria, the world’s No.1 insect-borne infectious disease, for more than five decades. Her team’s discovery of artemisinin, which won her the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, has saved millions of lives worldwide, according to incomplete statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The discovery of artemisinin is a small step in mankind’s fight against malaria, but it’s a big gift offered by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to the world,” Tu said.

In the 1960s when the world was plagued by malaria’s high mortality rate, Tu was appointed the head of a government project aimed to use TCM to treat the disease.

The project was then deemed by many as a “mission impossible” because China lagged far behind the more developed nations in terms of research levels and equipment at that time.

Tu was among the very few who had faith in the task. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” said Tu, who led a small research team of three at the beginning stage of the project.

Tu’s team collected more than 640 TCM prescriptions for malaria after reading TCM classics and consulting with TCM experts. A medical classic dating back about 1,600 years said qinghao, a kind of Chinese medicinal herb, has been used in TCM to treat infectious diseases.

In 1972, Tu and her colleagues used a low-temperature extraction process to isolate an effective antimalarial substance, later known as artemisinin, from the herb.

Artemisinin and its derivatives have proved effective in swiftly reducing the number of parasites in the blood of patients with malaria. WHO recommends Artemisinin Combination Treatment (ACT) as the first and second-line of treatment for the disease that inflicts over 400,000 deaths every year worldwide.

Since 2017, no malaria cases have been reported in China, indicating that the epidemic has been eradicated in the country.

Whenever asked about the achievement, Tu always gives the credit to her team, saying the discovery could not have been made without the help of her colleagues.

Over the years, the research team of three has grown into an interdisciplinary team comprised of more than 30 researchers from various fields including chemistry, pharmacology and biomedicine.

Tu and her team, however, have no plans to rest on their laurels.

Since 2015, they have focused on researching the mechanism of artemisinin resistance, which has remained a big challenge to fighting malaria.

Tu’s team discovered that partial artemisinin resistance is actually a delay in the clearance of malaria parasites from the bloodstream following treatment with combination therapy.

According to Tu, plasmodia can enter a state of dormancy during the ACT, while they also develop a resistance to partner drugs. But if the treatment period is extended to five to seven days and the partner drugs are replaced, the artemisinin resistance can be solved and plasmodia can be killed.

Tu said the study provided new evidence that artemisinin is still “the best weapon” against malaria.

A paper on the study was published in the April issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Tu said artemisinin is cheap and affordable for impoverished patients in epidemic areas such as Africa, and ACT will greatly contribute to the goal of eliminating malaria worldwide.

“TCM is a great treasure-house where artemisinin has been found,” she said. “We will continue our research on artemisinin and let the drug bring more benefits to people.”