First ever Nobel Prize for Chinese medicine

In 2015, scientist Tu Youyou became the first ever Chinese citizen to win a Nobel Prize for medicine when she was awarded for discovering a revolutionary therapy against malaria based on ancient Chinese herbal medicine.

The 85-year-old medical researcher and first female Chinese laureate discovered Artemisinin, a drug that significantly reduces morality rates for patients suffering Malaria. Professor Tu received half of the medicine prize for about US$47.5 million, with the other half awarded to Satoshi Omura and William Campbell who jointly discovered a therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites.

“The discovery of Artemisinin has led to development of a new drug that has saved the lives of millions of people, halving the mortality rate of malaria during the past 15 years,” said Professor Hans Forssberg, member of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine.

Professor Tu’s Nobel Prize is not only the highest possible international recognition of Traditional Chinese Traditional Medicine’s (TCM) valuable contribution to human health, it also signifies the power of an integrative medical culture. Applying modern scientific method to improve the efficacy of herbal medicinals found in ancient Chinese medical texts, Professor Tu’s research is at the interface between TCM and Western medicine.

In her Nobel Prize address, Professor Tu stated that “the discovery of qing hao su (Artemisia) is Traditional Chinese Medicine’s gift to humankind”. Although Professor Tu’s award has been widely celebrated, some Chinese medicine purists have questioned whether Professor Tu’s work is an example of true TCM on the basis that she uses a substance extracted from a single plant, Artemesia, or sweet wormwood, as well as the modern techniques used to prepare it. Traditionally, a Chinese herbalist would not use one herb by itself, instead adhering to the principle of multiple herbs working in synergy.

However, after further investigation of the ancient Chinese manuscript which Professor Tu attributes the discovery of Artemisia, I argue that the laureate has followed the TCM wisdom and preparation formula verbatim. The book “Formulas Kept Under the Elbow” (肘后方) or in its fuller translation “Formulas to be kept close at hand for Emergencies” written by Ge Hong, a famous herbalist from the East Jin Dynasty, clearly states how to prepare and consume Artemisia. According to the text herbalists should take “one handful of qinghao (artemisi), soak in two sheng (a unit volume, which in the Han dynasty was equal to 200ml of water), wring out the juice, consume all/take the full dosage.” “青蒿一握,以水二升渍,绞取汁,尽服之”

Professor Tu has closely followed Ge Hong’s work since 1971 and was greatly influenced by his book, including reproducing the traditional “Pao Zhi” preparation instructions with the addition of modern solvents for greater effectiveness. Preparing herbal medicinals is a science all to itself, and modifications have been employed throughout history to improve their efficacy. From Ge Hong’s book, Professor Tu inferred that high temperatures might destroy the active constituents of the plant, thus influencing its curative effects. Therefore, she reduced the temperature of extraction and switched the alcohol to a lower temperature boiling ether/solvent to make the extraction. This resulted in her being able to extract a chemical which she injected into mice and monkey’s infected with malaria, the inhibiting effect reached a consistent 100%. The Nobel laureate has effectively instituted a modern version of a traditional Pao Zhi technique without any modification to its principles of preparation, and at the same time exhibited the treasures of knowledge of TCM.

Stephen Ward, deputy director of Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, said the prize confirms that Chinese scientists “did fantastic work in the 1960s even when they were effectively ignored by the rest of the world.”

Professor Tu’s work demonstrates that Chinese medicine has a scientific method and approach to its system and can also be enhanced when combined with Western medicine. The chemical derivative, Artemisinin, is now combined with other slower active Western drugs – another example of Eastern and Western medicine being effective together. The reason being is that although it initially kills the Malarial parasite, the parasite does return and the slower active drugs helps to prevent that. In addition, taking Artemisinin alone eventually results in the parasite becoming resistant to the medication. In effect, we only have 10 more years of this compound being this effective.

To effectively combat Malaria, as well as address other global health issues, we need further collaboration between Eastern and Western medicine. As a growing number of well known drugs have been successfully developed from TCM herbal medicine, it is clear that an integrated approach presents exceptional opportunity. Western medicine can utilize the health benefits of nature discovered and honed through thousands of years of TCM research, whilst modern medicine can help to address any shortcomings. Combining the greatest minds, knowledge and approaches of both scientific cultures will have much greater impact than two stand alone systems. As they say, “Two heads are better than one.”