Traditional Chinese medicine at the service of modern medicine

 Tu Youyou took charge of the project in 1969 within his institute, where actors from traditional and modern medicine work together. The scientist rummages through the literature of traditional Chinese medicine. Two thousand remedies are selected, explains Evelyn Strauss. They will be revised and corrected, and in 1971 Tu Youyou's team produced 380 medicinal extracts from 200 plants.

It remains to find the one that effectively fights Plasmodium, the parasite responsible for malaria transmitted to humans by Anopheles. That which comes from Qing Hao (Artemisia annua L) inhibits its multiplication in the blood of animals. But the results obtained are impossible to reproduce.

Description of the research process that led to the discovery of artemisinin by Chinese researcher Tu Youyou, co-winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP)

A matter of temperature

Tu Youyou then dives into the Chinese medical grimoires and ends up finding the solution to his problem. The extraction technique must be changed: now it will be done at low temperature to preserve the healing properties of the molecule. At a summit of Project 523 members, the researcher announced in March 1972 that she had obtained conclusive results in rats and monkeys.

The first tests in humans involve 21 people and are carried out in the province of Hainan (southern China): half of the patients are carriers of the plasmodium falciparum (the most virulent form) and the other half of the plasmodium vivax (the most common). . Artemisinin, in its purest form, was officially obtained on November 8, 1972. The first report in English that first mentions the Chinese team's work was available in December 1979.

Meanwhile, Chinese researchers have launched large clinical trials. Conclusion: Artemisinin is much more effective than chloroquine and quinine. The World Health Organization (WHO) invited Tu Youyou to present her work in October 1981. In addition to artemisinin, it mentions a derivative of the formidable and effective molecule, dihydroartemisinin. The molecule extracted from artemisia annua is today the basis of anti-malaria treatments.

In the search for potential drugs against malaria, Tu and his working group analyzed in partnership with the Chinese government and on the basis of traditional Chinese medicine, many traditional herbal remedies. In 1971, the active compound was isolated from artemisia annua, introduced in 1972. In 1973, it synthesized the most potent derivative, dihydroartemisinin. Subsequent work focused on the use of artemisinin and its derivatives in other diseases. For the discovery of artemisinin, a malaria drug that has saved millions of people around the world, especially in developing countries, she received the Lasker-DeBakey Prize for Medico-Clinical Research 2011.

She received the "National Prize for Inventions" and the "National Prize for the ten best discoveries in science and technology" for the results of her research. She was further awarded the following titles: "Eminent Scientist" (First Group) by the Chinese Nation in 1984, one of the "Ten Most Eminent Women" by the Central Government in 1994, "National Vanguard Worker By the National Ministry in 1995 and "Inventor of the New Century" by the State Intellectual Property Office of the People's Republic of China (SIPO) in 2002.

She became "full professor", "professor-president", research director at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing and head of the Artemisinin Research and Development Center at that academy. Since then, she has obtained new results in the research of this active ingredient of the annual mugwort plant (qing hao (青蒿)) and its derivatives.

She won the 2011 Albert-Lasker Prize for Clinical Medical Research for her work on artemisinin and the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.