Scientist's Award Defended

Chinese academics say the woman who discovered an antimalarial treatment is entitled to her prize.
2011-09-26
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Tu Youyou describes her work in a still from a video posted on the Lasker Foundation website.
Tu Youyou describes her work in a still from a video posted on the Lasker Foundation website.
Photo appears courtesy of the Lasker Foundation

A top Chinese university has defended the recent award of a prestigious scientific prize to one of its alumni, after her claim to the prize was disputed in China.

Pharmacist Tu Youyou, 81, received the 2011 Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award over the weekend for her work on extracting a crucial substance from traditional herbs to treat malaria.

According to the Lasker Foundation, Tu extracted artemisinin, now a front-line malaria treatment, from sweet wormwood, a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine, saving "millions of lives."

"Tu led a team that transformed an ancient Chinese healing method into the most powerful antimalarial medicine currently available," the Foundation said in a statement on its website.

Tu, now the Chief Scientist at the China Academy of Chinese Medical Research, is the first Chinese citizen to receive the award, which is regarded by some as the American equivalent to the Nobel prizes.

But not everyone is happy, with some Chinese scientists saying that the work shouldn't be credited to Tu alone.

Seeking a cure

The research effort to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria was carried out by a large team of researchers working on "Project 523" at the height of the political turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

However, local media, including the official website of the People's Daily, mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, quoted interviews with top scientists saying the award should have gone to the entire team.

Team member Li Ying, a researcher who once made key contributions to the research, told the People's Daily that the project had won many prizes both at home and abroad, but all of them had been awarded to the whole team—until now.

At the award ceremony, Tu herself appeared to agree.

"I think the honor not only belongs to me, but also to all Chinese scientists," Tu said at the award ceremony in New York.

"The discovery of artemisinin is a gift to mankind from traditional Chinese medicine," Tu said.

Defending the decision

Beijing University professor Rao Yi, dean of life sciences, together with two colleagues, recently published an article defending the Lasker Award to Tu alone, however.

"While it is still in dispute who was the first to discover artemisinin, it was Tu's research method that was considered to be the key to this discovery," the article said.

Tu used ether to extract artemisinin, finding ways to boost the efficacy of the compound while minimizing negative side-effects.

According to the Lasker Foundation, Tu "combed ancient texts and folk remedies for possible leads," collecting 2,000 prescriptions which were analyzed chemically.

By 1971, the researchers had narrowed down the list of candidates to 280, forming extracts from the herbs and testing them on malaria-infected mice.

By March 1972, the researchers had seen artemisinin wipe out the malarial parasite in mice and monkeys, but their report was initially published anonymously in English, as was the custom in China at the time.

Perhaps owing to the political turmoil in China at the time, with the fall of the Gang of Four and the death of Mao, who was behind the project, the initial article detailing the success of artemisinin did not appear internationally until 1979.

According to the Lasker Foundation: "Today it is clear that Tu's insight and vision have saved millions of lives, particularly in the developing world."

Reported by Luisetta Mudie.

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