For the discovery of artemisinin, a drug therapy for malaria that has saved millions of lives across the globe, especially in the developing world.
The 2011 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award honors a scientist who discovered artemisinin and its utility for treating malaria. Tu Youyou (China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing) developed a therapy that has saved millions of lives across the globe, especially in the developing world. An artemisinin-based drug combination is now the standard regimen for malaria, and the World Health Organization (WHO) lists artemisinin and related agents in its catalog of “Essential Medicines.” Each year, several hundred million people contract malaria. Without treatment, many more of them would die than do now. Tu led a team that transformed an ancient Chinese healing method into the most powerful antimalarial medicine currently available.
Malaria has devastated humans for millennia, and it continues to ravage civilizations across the planet. In 2008, the mosquito-borne parasites that cause the illness, Plasmodia, infected 247 million people and caused almost one million deaths. The ailment strikes children particularly hard, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. It affects more than 100 countries — including those in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, parts of Europe — and travelers from everywhere. Symptoms include fever, headache, and vomiting; malaria can quickly become life-threatening by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs. Early diagnosis and treatment reduces disease incidence, prevents deaths, and cuts transmission.
Award presentation by Lucy Shapiro
Not often in the history of clinical medicine can we celebrate a discovery that has eased the pain and distress of hundreds of millions of people and saved the lives of countless numbers of people, particularly children, in over 100 countries. The discovery, chemical identification, and validation of artemisinin, a highly effective anti-malarial drug, is largely due to the scientific insight, vision, and dogged determination of Professor Tu Youyou and her team at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica in Beijing. The statistics on malarial infections are horrendous. Professor Tu’s work has provided the world with arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.
The story behind Professor Tu’s work that led to the discovery of artemisinin could easily be the stuff of a novel set during Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. In the late 1960s, a secret military project in China, Project 523 (for May 23), was established by Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou to develop new antimalarial therapies for the mosquito-borne infection that was devastating civilian and military populations. At that time, most malarial infections had become resistant to chloroquine, the most commonly used drug. In the Vietnam War, the number of soldiers who died of drug-resistant malaria was much higher than that from casualties in both combating sides. The mandate of Project 523 was to screen traditional Chinese herbal medicines with a goal of compound identification, chemical validation, and demonstration of effectiveness in malaria patients. Project 523 was a competitive effort launched with approximately 50 institutes across China involved in the endeavor.
Acceptance remarks by Tu Youyou
Dear respected Chairman, President, and Jury members of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, dear respected Nobel Laureates and my fellow Lasker Laureates, dear respected President of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, ladies and gentlemen,
I am extremely honored to be selected as a winner of this year’s Lasker~DeBakery Clinical Medical Research Award — one of the most esteemed awards in the biomedical sciences. I express my wholehearted thanks to the jury members for the recognition of my contributions to the discovery of Qinghaosu (artemisinin) for malaria treatment.
Interview with Tu Youyou
Video Credit: Susan Hadary