Tu Youyou's 'Bittersweet' Nobel Prize a Boost For Chinese Medicine


2015-10-08
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000_Hkg10215897.jpg Tu Youyou delivers a speech at a medical symposium in Beijing, Oct. 8, 2015.
AFP

Monday's award of the joint 2015 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine to 85-year-old medical researcher Tu Youyou for her groundbreaking work on the anti-malarial drug artemisinin has provoked a mixed reaction in China.

Tu, already a researcher at the interface between traditional Chinese and Western medicine, searched ancient Chinese medical texts for clues about a potential mass-produced pharmaceutical treatment for malaria.

Chinese medicinal practitioners usually rely on traditional recipes for decoctions of mixed herbs and animal parts, making it hard to pinpoint a single active ingredient for mass-production as a pharmaceutical.

But deep in an ancient medical treatise, Tu found a cure for "recurring fever" that involved nothing but artemisia annua, and began work extracting the crucial compound, a synthetic version of which is still used today.

Tu's award has rocked the Chinese scientific establishment.

She has no doctoral degree, nor has she held any position of standing in any of the country's medical or research establishments, prompting some derisive comments about her record online.

And the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo still rankles in Beijing, which reacted furiously at the time, saying Liu, who is serving jail time for writing the 'subversive' Charter '08, is a criminal.

Official support


However, Chinese premier Li Keqiang congratulated Tu on her achievement, while the official Xinhua news agency chimed in with words of support.

"Some may question about Tu’s lacking a doctoral degree, international experience, and a title as academician of the Chinese academy," the agency wrote in a commentary this week.

"The fact that Tu has none of these three backgrounds also reminds us that science should be more accessible to all," it said.

Netizens were quick to point out that Tu's award is a slap in the face for China's scientific research community, which had repeatedly turned down her applications to join the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

"So the Nobel Prize is given to a courageous and outspoken person whose application to the CAS was repeatedly turned down ... Chinese academia must be ashamed of themselves," user @aoge-leo wrote via Twitter.

Twitter user @taxiangyike said Tu's achievement was the end result of years of painstaking work by scientists.

"But when a scientist wins a Nobel prize ... all anyone can think about is the honor for the motherland and the brilliance fostered by the embrace of the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party," the user wrote.

Bittersweet feelings

Beijing University of Science and Technology professor Chen Zhaozhi said the news of Tu's award was bittersweet for many in China.

"She wasn't given the award in China, but overseas, and she's not even a member of the CAS," Chen said.

"That's the saddest thing, because it shows that this system isn't at the forefront of taking the best of Chinese science to the world, and that China can't advance if the system doesn't change," he said.

Chen said the current scientific establishment in China doesn't nurture innovation.

"A lot of very important inventions have been suppressed, or they have been appropriated, destroyed or betrayed," he said.

Tu has said the award was a "great honor," and has said that not all of the credit for her work on artemisinin should be hers, calling it the "collective achievement" of her research team.

But in 2007, researchers at the U.S. National Institutes of Health took a close look at the history of Tu's work, and concluded that she should be credited with the invention of an extraction method for the active ingredient in artemisia annua.

A 2011 article in the journal Cell also credited her personally with ensuring that the extract was neutral and not acidic, making the substance more effective.

Former ministry of health official Chen Bingzhong said the award was "very meaningful indeed" for China, and for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), which is still widely used throughout the country, often in tandem with Western techniques.

"There has always been a lot of malaria in southern China, so China has always had this medicine, which was very clearly effective," Chen said.

"We were trying to guess who would win the prize for medicine, but we never thought it would be her, or anything to do with traditional Chinese medicine," he said.

Boost to traditional medicine

In Hong Kong, where researchers continue to make the prescriptions and techniques of traditional Chinese medicine more intelligible to the scientific community, a researcher at the city's University of Science and Technology surnamed Chow said Tu's award is a big boost to the process of modernization of TCM.

"The important thing is that [Tu] made such an important contribution to the modernization of TCM," Chow said.

"But at the same time, it is a wake-up call to the importance of intellectual property protection, because the patents and the licenses aren't held in China, but overseas," he said.

Tu, in an interview with Xinhua this week, appeared to agree with Chen and Chow.

"The important thing isn't the award itself, but the recognition that there is much that is extremely valuable in Chinese medicine," Tu told the agency.

"But they can't just be picked up and used just like that ... we are going to have to do a lot more work on this in future," she said.

Reported by Xin Lin, Tian Yi and An Pei for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Pan Jiaqing and Wei Ling for the Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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