On 5th October 2015, the Chinese pharmacologist Youyou Tu was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery of artemisinin. As a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, I am very proud of this great achievement. It is an historic breakthrough in at least three aspects: The first citizen of People’s Republic of China to be awarded the Nobel Prize for science; the first female Nobel Prize winner from China; the first Nobel Prize awarded to Chinese herb research.
Artemisinin was extracted from the Chinese herb Qinghao (Artemisia annua, English common name: Sweet Wormwood). It has opened new way to battle malaria. This research started in the late 1960’s, since when, Ms Tu has studied and reviewed 2,000 ancient herbal formulae from the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing. She found a record referring to the treatment of malaria from a classic text from 1,600 year ago (during the East Jin Dynasty). It recommended soaking sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) in water and drinking the resulting infusion. Ms Tu invented ether extraction of Qinghao and significantly increase the effect of artemisinin. This great invention had saved more than a million lives in Africa. It is a milestone in the treatment of malaria. Through over 40 years of concerted effort by an entire research team, this research has been awarded the highest accolade of scientific research.
At the Awards ceremony, a Chinese journalist asked: “Can we say this is the first time in you award to traditional Chinese medicine, and can you comment on the contribution to this field?” Mr.Hans Forssberg of the Nobel Prize committee said: “It is very important that we are not giving prize to traditional medicine. We are giving prize to person inspired by traditional medicine and who has been able to make new drug that can be distributed all over the world.” I think the most important step is the “inspired by traditional medicine”. There are thousands of medicinal herbs in the world. Finding an effective herb for malaria is like searching for a needle under the sea. Only under the guidance of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s classical texts and the clinical experience of 1600 years, was Youyou Tu able to find the critical inspiration to make her discovery.
Qinghao (Artemisia annua) is one of my favourite herbs in my practice. It not only provides effective treatment for malaria but also is used to good effect on the symptoms of menopause. Within the practice of traditional Chinese medicine, the symptoms of hot flushes and night sweats are due to yin deficiency and I often use Qinghao to clear the heat which causes these symptoms. It has always shown significant positive effects.
Traditional Chinese medicine is a great treasure of the world. The discovery of artemisinin has merely scraped the tip of the iceberg. I believe more and more great discoveries in Chinese medicine research will come in the future.