Youyou Tu won the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery in 1972 of the drug artemisinin, a treatment for malaria.
Tu extracted artemisinin from sweet wormwood, an herb utilized in Chinese fever treatments for more than 2,000 years.
Artemisinin and the drug Tu derived from it, dihydroartemisinin, have saved or improved the lives of millions of people.
Childhood & Education
Youyou Tu was born on December 30, 1930, in the city of Ningbo, on China’s east coast. Her father worked in a bank and her mother was a housewife. Youyou had four brothers.
Youyou was educated at private schools. At age 15, she was forced to take a two-year break from schooling when she contracted tuberculosis. Her recovery from tuberculosis left her determined to pursue a career in medicine.
She completed her schooling in 1951 at Ningbo High School, then, age 20, passed the entrance exam allowing her to enroll at Peking University Medical School’s Department of Pharmacology.
Becoming a Scientist
In 1955, age 24, Youyou Tu graduated with a degree in Pharmacology and was hired by the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
She began researching Lobelia chinensis an herb traditionally used to treat schistosomiasis (also known as bilharzia) and Radix Stellariae a root traditionally used to treat fevers.
China’s Murderous Cultural Revolution
China’s Cultural Revolution began in 1966, when Marxist fanatics declared intellectuals to be the “Stinking Old Ninth,” placing them in nine black-listed categories with other “offenders” such as landlords, right-wingers, and people who wanted to take China on a capitalist road. Universities and schools came under pressure or were shut.
The Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates the number of people murdered by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution at five to ten million. Large numbers of ethnic minority people were targeted and killed. Government policies also led to famines in which 30 to 40 million Chinese peasants starved to death. The Cultural Revolution revolution ended in 1976.
In the Cultural Revolution’s climate of fear Tu kept her head down.
In early 1969, the Chinese government appointed her as head of research of Project 523, seeking a cure for malaria. Although by this time most scientific research work in China had been stopped, military-related research continued. North Vietnam had requested help from China with malaria, which was taking a heavy toll on its armed forces in the Vietnam War.
American forces were also suffering badly from malaria and researchers in the West had tested over 200,000 chemical compounds looking in vain for an effective treatment for the disease.
The single-celled parasite that causes malaria, Plasmodium falciparum, had become resistant to the standard treatment with chloroquine.
China’s southern provinces were plagued by malaria, and Tu was sent to China’s Hainan Island where the disease was endemic.
Tu began traveling around China, searching for ancient texts that mentioned treatments for fevers – particularly recurring fevers, which are a feature of malaria.
In three years her project team screened over 2,000 traditional treatments and tested 380 herbal extracts on mice. In 1971, they found an extract of the plant Artemisia annua, whose common English name is sweet wormwood, was highly effective in suppressing Plasmodium falciparum parasites in mice and monkeys.
Tu perfected a low-temperature way to purify the sweet wormwood extract, boosting its effectiveness and dramatically lowering its toxicity. She then successfully tested it on herself and two members of her team, before beginning clinical trials on other people in the fall of 1972.
To produce enough of the drug for clinical trials, Tu and her team utilized household equipment: this was necessary because the government had shut down any suitable pharmaceutical facilities for scaled-up drug production. While producing the drug for clinical trials, Tu and members of her team became ill from exposure to toxic solvents.
In 1972, Tu produced the pure pharmaceutical substance, artemisinin, and discovered its chemical structure:
In 1973, Tu carried out further experiments on artemisinin and accidentally produced a new drug, dihydroartemisinin.
Artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin have proven to be highly effective in anti-malarial preparations and are now part of the standard treatments worldwide for malaria.
In 2015, Youyou Tu won a half-share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work. Satoshi Omura and William C. Campbell each won one-quarter shares for the therapy they devised for roundworm parasites.
Tu married Li Tingzhao, a former school classmate and metallurgical engineer. They had two daughters.
When Tu went to Hainan Island to work on Project 523, her metallurgical engineer husband was considered “too privileged” and taken from his family by the government and sent to be “re-educated” working as a peasant in a rural area. The couple’s four-year-old daughter was cared for in a Beijing nursery, while their one-year-old daughter was cared for by Tu’s parents. Her children did not know Tu when she was finally able to see them after three years apart.
Today Tu is the Chief Scientist in the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing.
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"Youyou Tu." Famous Scientists. famousscientists.org. 20 Mar. 2018. Web. <www.famousscientists.org/youyou-tu/>.
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Wenxiu Liu and Yue Liu
Youyou Tu: significance of winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine
Cardiovasc Diagn Ther. 2016 Feb; 6(1): 1–2
“Youyou Tu – Biographical”. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014.
Nobel Prize goes to modest woman who beat malaria for China
New Scientist 9 November 2011, updated 5 October 2015
Photograph of Youyou Tu courtesy of Bengt Nyman under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.