Last week’s star, Louis Pasteur, had an amazing list of major scientific contributions and is considered as one of the most important figures in the history of science. While our star this week does not have a similarly long list, she has made one solid impact on the medical community that places her in “top scientists” list, for her research has directly saved millions of lives around the world. She is Tu You You, the first Chinese woman to win the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.
When Tu was sixteen, she contracted tuberculosis and had to take a two-year break from school for her treatment. This experience led her to choose medical research for her advanced education and career. She writes in her biography, “If I could learn and have (medical) skills, I could not only keep myself healthy but also cure many other patients.” Thus, she worked to learn pharmacy with a desire to find new medicine for patients, and she graduated from the Medical School of Peking University in 1955. After earning a degree, she was chosen to join the Institute of Materia Medica at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (later the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences). From 1959 to 1962, she participated in a full-time training course in the use of traditional Chinese medicine that was geared toward researchers with knowledge of Western medicine. The course provided a foundation for her later application of traditional Chinese medical knowledge to modern drug discovery.
In 1967, during the Vietnam War (1954–75), Tu was appointed to lead Project 523, a covert effort to discover a treatment for malaria. The project was initiated by the Chinese government at the urging of allies in North Vietnam, where malaria had claimed the lives of numerous soldiers. Tu and her team of researchers began by thoroughly reviewing the traditional Chinese medical literature and folk recipes and interviewing experienced Chinese medical practitioners. They prepared over a hundred herb extracts for testing and ran many experiments using animal models. However, up till 1971, few promising results were found. Undeterred, Tu went back to the literature to review relevant information and focused on one of the herbs, Qinghao, which was producing inconsistent results. This effort turned out to be crucial as she discovered the key to the previous failures. She realized that the active compound, now known as artemisinin, is destroyed by high heat. After she tweaked the experiments to overcome this flaw, her team could successfully run the tests on malaria-infected monkeys and rodents and achieved up to a 100% effectiveness rate. Onto the next step, Tu volunteered as the first human subject to be tested.
In 2015, Tu became the first woman in China to win a Nobel Prize. The World Health Organization has named artemisinin, now mankind’s main line of defense against malaria, an essential drug. Although malaria has been eliminated in the U.S., it causes hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide each year. Tu’s discovery is a mainstay in the efforts to save those lives.
- In China, she is known as the "three noes" winner: no medical degree, no doctorate, and no overseas work experience.
-Her father chose her first name, You You, based on a line from a poem, ‘呦呦鹿鸣, 食野之蒿’, which translates as ‘The deer bleat “youyou” as they eat the wild “hao”’. It is a cool coincidence that qinghao (青蒿) is the Chinese name for the herbs in the Artemisia family.