Women’s History Month: Tu Youyou, Heroine Against Malaria

by William Huang


Tu Youyou. Some consider her a medical scientist, pharmaceutical chemist, educator, or even a hero. However, one fact is undeniable, she and her discoveries were and continue to be fundamental to saving the lives and improving the health of millions of people affected by malaria every year.


Tu Youyou in her lab (credit: Yang Wumin/AP)

Early Life

Born on December 30, 1930, Tu was raised in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China with four brothers. As a child and young teen, Tu attended private schools. At the age of 15, she was forced to take a two-year break from her formal studying after contracting tuberculosis. However, instead of being discouraged from her loss of learning, Tu became determined to pursue a career in medicine.


At the age of 20, she passed the rigorous entrance exam into Peking University’s Medical School and eventually graduated with a Pharmacology degree and was hired by the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1955. There, she expanded upon traditional chinese herbal medicine by researching plants like Lobelia chinensis and Radix Stellariae to treat fevers and diseases.


Unfortunately, in 1966, the Chinese Cultural Revolution began. As a result, the Communist regime declared intellectuals like Tu to be the “Stinking Old Ninth”, labeling them as offenders to the Chinese government. During that time, educational institutions and members were heavily pressured and shut down. Tu decided to stay out of politics and keep her head down, in fear of being convicted and put in jail - or worse.


Creating a Fundamental Drug

In 1969, the Chinese government appointed Tu as the head of research of Project 523, seeking a treatment for malaria. At the time, the ongoing Vietnam War caused thousands of soldiers from both sides to be infected with malaria. Furthermore, China’s southern provinces were plagued by the disease. Because the malaria-causing parasite had become resistant to the standard treatment with chloroquine, the U.S. and its allies had tested over 200,000 chemical compounds to find a cure, but to no avail.


During the project, Tu Youyou led her team to test over 2,000 traditional treatments and 380 herbal extracts on mice. They found one compound to be effective from the sweet wormwood plant (Artemisia annua), which was historically used to treat fevers. Eventually, Tu managed to perfect a method of extracting the compound and tested it on herself and other human subjects. However, because of a lack of proper pharmaceutical equipment, she was forced to use unsafe household tools, causing her to become ill from exposure to toxic solvents.


Despite this obstacle, Tu successfully produced and determined the chemical structure of the pure substance artemisinin in 1972. A year later, she performed further experiments and produced the new compound dihydroartemisinin. Both chemicals were found to be extremely effective in fighting malaria and now are fundamental ingredients to malaria medicine around the world.


Sweet wormwood herb Tu studied for malaria
Chemical structure of artemisinin

In 2015, Tu won half the share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery. She also received the 2011 Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine as the first native Chinese awardee. Her discovery led to the survival and improved health of millions of people throughout the world and continues to do so today. However, she once humbly stated, “It is a scientist’s responsibility to continue fighting for the healthcare of all humans. What I have done is what I should have done in return for the education provided by my country. I feel more reward when I see so many patients cured.”


Credit: The Nobel Prize

Sources:

Tu YouYou. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://scientificwomen.net/women/youyou-tu-97


Tu Youyou Facts. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2015/tu/facts/


Youyou Tu. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.famousscientists.org/youyou-tu/

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