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Here’s How Nobel Laureate Tu Youyou Helped Fight Malaria

Notably, Tu Youyou, who was born in December 1930 has been dedicated towards finding a cure for malaria for more than five decades, reported Xinhua.

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Updated:October 8, 2019, 7:33 AM IST
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Here’s How Nobel Laureate Tu Youyou Helped Fight Malaria
The 2015 Nobel medicine or physiology laureate Professor Tu Youyou of China greets the applause after receiving her award during the 2015 Nobel prize award ceremony in Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10, 2015. (Image: REUTERS/File)

Nobel laureate Tu Youyou, who had led the discovery of the malaria drug atemisinin, was, on Sunday, awarded the Medal of the Republic as the People's Republic of China prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary. Malaria, along with other mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and chikungunya have seen a spike across countries in the tropical and sub-tropical regions.

Notably, Tu, who was born in December 1930 has been dedicated towards finding a cure for malaria for more than five decades, reported Xinhua. According to the report, her team's discovery of artemisinin, which went on to win her the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has already saved millions of lives around th world, according to the World Health organization (WHO).

Speaking about the same to Xinhua, Tu said that the iscovery of artemisinin is a small step in mankind's fight against malaria, but it's a big gift offered by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to the world.

Tu was appointed the head of a government project aimed to use TCM to treat the disease during the 1960s when the world was plagued by the high mortality rate due to the mosquito-borne disease malaria.

At the time of it initiation, the project was deemed by many as "mission impossible", because China lagged behind more developed nations in terms of research levels and equipment available.

Tu, however, was among the very few who had faith in the task and led a small research team of three at the beginning stage of the project.

Tu's team collected more than 640 TCM prescriptions for malaria after reading TCM classics and consulting with TCM experts.

According to a medical classic dating back about 1,600 years, qinghao, a kind of Chinese medicinal herb, was used in TCM to treat infectious diseases.

Tu and her colleagues used a low-temperature extraction process to isolate an effective antimalarial substance, later known as artemisinin, from the herb in 1972 and artemisinin and its derivatives have proved effective in swiftly reducing the number of parasites in the blood of patients with malaria.

Notably, WHO recommends Artemisinin Combination Treatment (ACT) as the first and second-line of treatment for the disease that inflicts over 400,000 deaths every year worldwide.

Since 2017, no malaria cases have been reported in China, indicating that the epidemic has been eradicated in the country.

Over the years, the original research team of three has grown into an interdisciplinary team comprised of more than 30 researchers from various fields including chemistry, pharmacology and biomedicine. While it was a pathbreaking discovery, Tu and her team, however, have no plans to rest.

Since 2015, they have focused on researching the mechanism of artemisinin resistance, which has remained a big challenge to fighting malaria.

During their studies, Tu's team discovered that partial artemisinin resistance is actually a delay in the clearance of malaria parasites from the bloodstream following treatment with combination therapy.

Subsequently, according to her, plasmodia can enter a state of dormancy during ACT and develop a resistance to partner drugs. But if the treatment period is extended to five to seven days and the partner drugs are replaced, the artemisinin resistance can be solved and plasmodia can be killed. A paper on the study was published in the April issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

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