Tu Youyou is the first Chinese national to win a Nobel Prize in a scientific field

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday to Drs. William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura, who jointly share one-half of the award “for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites”, and Tu Youyou (屠呦呦), who won the other half “for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria”.

Tu, chief professor at China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences (formerly known as China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine), is recognized for role in for identifying, extracting, and showing the efficacy of a compound named artemisinin in treating malaria.  Her inspiration for discovering and isolating this compound came from traditional Chinese medicine’s use of sweet wormwood (青蒿素) to treat fevers, which can be indicator of malaria.   Medicines and treatments created from artemisinin have saved millions of lives, and she was previously honored in 2011 for her achievements with the Lasker DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, often called a pre-cursor to a Nobel win.

The Nobel Foundation explains “When used in combination therapy, it is estimated to reduce mortality from Malaria by more than 20% overall and by more than 30% in children.  For Africa alone, this means that more than 100 000 lives are saved each year.”   The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1 billion artemisinin-based treatment courses have been administered and that the Nobel prize for artemisinin is “a tribute to the contribution of the Chinese scientific community in the fight against malaria.”

Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province in 1930, Tu graduated from Peking University School of Medicine in 1955 and worked as a researcher at China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.  In 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, she joined a secret military program named Project 523 commissioned by Mao Zedong himself two years earlier to find a cure for malaria which afflicted thousands in southern China and Northern Vietnamese Communist soldiers fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of China’s southern neighbor.

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