Malaria has been a deadly problem for humans since ancient times. Usually, people get malaria when infected mosquitoes bite them. Countless people have died from the disease. Thankfully, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou found an effective drug called qinghaosu.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Tu’s discovery. In 1969, Tu became the director of a national project to develop a drug against malaria. Her team took a unique approach. They studied books about classical Chinese medicine. After reading more than 2,000 old remedies, Tu and her team collected over 600 plants and listed almost 380 possible remedies for malaria.
One remedy, which is 1,600 years old, uses sweet wormwood as a treatment. Tu found it effective and tried to extract the qinghaosu from it in order to make a drug. The extraction failed at first, so Tu returned to the classical books again and finally found a way. She used a low-temperature method to extract the qinghaosu and finally succeeded in 1972.
After her team showed that qinghaosu could treat malaria in mice and monkeys, Tu and two of her colleagues volunteered to test the drug on themselves before testing on human patients. It turned out that qinghaosu was safe and all patients in the test recovered. Gradually, qinghaosu became the first-line treatment for malaria recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), saving millions of lives around the world.
In 2015, when Tu was awarded with the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, she refused to take all of the credit. Instead, she praised her colleagues and Chinese traditional medicine. She once said: “Every scientist dreams of doing something that can help the world.”