Youyou Tu's herbal therapy for malaria wins Nobel for medicine

Youyou Tu of China, who discovered a novel herbal therapy for malaria share the Nobel Prize in Physiology (or Medicine) with William C Campbell and Satoshi Omura who discovered new therapies for infections caused by roundworm parasites.

 
William C Campbell (l) and Satoshi Omura discovered new therapies for infections caused by roundworm parasites. They share the Nobel Prize in medicine with Youyou Tu  

One-half of the prize amount will go to Youyou Tu for the discovery of `artemisinin', an effective drug for treatment of malaria, while William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura share the other half for the discovery of a new drug, 'avermectin', the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and lymphatic filariasis, the Nobel Prize Committee stated in a release.

Tu, 85, will share half of the prestigious 8m Swedish kronor (£631,000) prize for her discovery of artemisinin, a drug that proved to be an improvement on chloroquin, which had become far less effective as the malaria parasites developed resistance.

She becomes the first Chinese scientist to win a Nobel Prize in the sciences who has spent the majority of his or her career in China. She also becomes China's first Nobel Prize winner in medicine and just the 12th woman overall to win in that field.

Tu, who had studied both Chinese and western medicine, was appointed by Chinese Academy of Traditional Medicine to find a cure for the widespread malaria disease.

She followed up the Mao era project 523 (as it began on 23 May 1967 and shut down in 1981). Tu followed instructions in a 1,600-year-old text titled Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve. The text stated that the sweet wormwood herb must be soaked in water and the juice consumed.

''The researchers tested the potion on monkeys and mice and found it to be 100 per cent effective,'' Tu is quoted in the New Scientist report as saying. ''We had just cured drug-resistant malaria,'' Tu says. ''We were very excited.''

For nearly two millennia, Chinese healers were using leaves from the sweet wormwood plant to cure fevers. But its effects were not scientifically proved.

Tu's team collected 2,000 recipes from 640 herbs, which Tu narrowed down to a few promising candidates. The project resulted in the discovery of the anti-malarial drug, artimesinin, which is one of the most successful transformations of traditional therapy into modern medicine.

William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura
William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura discovered a new drug, 'avermectin', the derivatives of which have radically lowered the incidence of River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis, as well as showing efficacy against an expanding number of other parasitic diseases.

Adult worms lodge in lymphatic system and disrupt immune system. Causes abnormal enlargement of body parts, pain, severe disability and social stigma.

About 1.23 billion in 58 countries are threatened with the disease - 80 per cent of whom live in 10 countries, including India, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Lymphatic filariasis, commonly known as elephantiasis, is a tropical disease caused by transmission of parasites classified as nematodes (roundworms) of the family Filariodideato, to humans by mosquitoes.

Adult worms lodge in lymphatic system and disrupt immune system, causes abnormal enlargement of body parts, pain, severe disability and social stigma. Over 120 million people are infected, about 40 million disfigured or incapacitated.

River Blindness, also known as onchocerciasis or Robles' Disease, is caused by transmission of the parasitic worm Onchocerca volvulus by black flies of the genus Simulium.

Vector lives near rivers, thus the name. Inside the host, the worms create larvae that travel to the skin, and infect other flies that bite the victim.

Symptoms include severe itching, eruptions under the skin, and blindness. About 17-25 million are infected; some 0.8 million have some degree of vision loss. Most infections in sub-Saharan Africa.

These two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually.

The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.