Tu Youyou: First Chinese Scientist Who Won Nobel Prize For Malaria Drug Without Formal Medical Education

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In 1972, when Tu Youyou, a scientist from Zhejiang province in China volunteered to be the first human subject for the trial of an anti-malaria drug that she had developed little did she know that she would get a Nobel prize for it one day.  She won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015 but doesn’t have a PhD. She never went to a medical college.

Tu Youyou

Her drug was inspired by ancient Chinese texts from the Zhou, Qing, and Han Dynasties. Tu is respected in the field of medicine for her courage to test the drug first on herself. 

Her Childhood 

Tu Youyou was born in a family of four brothers. She received formal education along with her brothers. All was fine till Tu Youyou got to her teens. Her education was halted at the age of 16 after she was infected with Tuberculosis. She recovered after two years. However, this bedridden phase of her life intrigued her to dive deep into medicine. Her thirst to find a cure for people like her suffering later earned her the prestigious “NOBEL PRIZE” in 2015.

“If I could learn and have (medical) skills, I could not only keep myself healthy but also cure many other patients,” Tu wrote in her autobiography.

Tu Youyou completed her graduation in pharmaceutics in 1955 from Beijing Medical College. Identifying and classifying medicinal plants, extracting and analysing their chemical composition was an essential part of her educational journey. Having hands-on experience of western medicine through her graduation, she also opted for a two-year course on traditional Chinese medicine. This later gave her most needed the knowledge to combine both traditional Chinese medicines and modern western methods to find a cure for malaria.

“Mission 523”

Mission 523, was Mao Zedong’s top-secret project initiated to eradicate Malaria. It was named after the date it was launched May 23, 1967. During the Vietnam war, a mass number of soldiers were infected with malaria.

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Chloroquine, which was widely used for malaria since it’s development in 1952 failed miserably as the parasite became resistant to the previously used malarial drug. As it took a toll on more lives, the Vietnam government formed an urgent ally with the Chinese ministry to develop a cure for outspread sickness. With this intent “Mission 523” was initiated with Tu Youyou as project head.

Tu Youyou DISCOVERY
An early publication by Tu Youyou © Nobel Prize Museum, Photo: Karl Anderson

Her Intensive research work demanded her to fly to various disease-affected towns and villages. By that time she had been blessed with two daughters both under the age of 5 years, whom she had to leave with her parents.

In conversation with The Guardian, Tu said, “The work was the top priority so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life”

Tu Youyou DISCOVERY
Tu Youyou with one of her mentors, pharmacologist Lou Zhicen, in the 1950s. Lou Zhicen trained her to identify medicinal plants based on their botanical descriptions.

Artemisinin- “ Saviour Of Lives ”

Tu Youyou with the help of her team spotted over 640 plants, tested the extracts of more than 200 plants. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested and failure stamped before Tu’s attempt. As a result of tremendous effort, eventually, the extract [Artemisinin] from sweet wormwood plant (Qinghao), Artemisia annua, was found to have a great positive effect. 

 

The following tests on mice and monkeys proved one hundred per cent success rate. To mention her commitment, Tu first tested it on herself. Consequently, the drug was administered to fellow humans. “As the head of this research group, I had the responsibility,” she explained.

On having a word with the South China Morning Post  Tu quoted “Artemisinin combination treatments, or ACTs, are the first-line drugs for treating malaria recommended by the WHO, and the most important weapon in fighting against malaria worldwide,”

The team presented their findings to the World health organization in 1980. Finally, their drug went on for global usage in the early 2000s. Her invention in later years was extremely helpful when the same intense malaria outbreak happened both in Asian and African continents.

NOBEL HONOR

For her remarkable efforts, Tu Youyou was awarded “The Nobel Prize” in Physiology or Medicine for the year 2015. Sharing with two of her counterparts William C.Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for their similar contributions.

The Lasker Foundation also honoured Tu with its Clinical Medical Research Award in 2011, quoting artemisinin as “arguably the most important pharmaceutical intervention in the last half-century.”

While Artemisinin’s groundbreaking effects are still wondered in the Pharma world, Tu went on to unveil a comparatively stronger antimalarial compound – dihydroartemisinin, which is a bioactive artemisinin metabolite. She continues her work as a professor and director of Qinghaosu Research Center at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences.

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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