Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Nobel Prize

April 8, 2018 Joe Brady

In 2015 traditional Chinese medicine won it’s first Nobel prize when Sweden’s Karolinska Institute awarded Tu Youyou, with the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, together with William Campbell, and Japan’s Satoshi Omura. Tu won for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against malaria using the Chinese herb Artemisia annua (qinghaosu 青蒿素), or sweet wormwood The herb is from a 1600 year old Chinese Medical Book “ Emergency Formulas to Keep Up Your Sleeve” By Ge Hong 283-343 C.E. Tu was the first to extract the biologically active component of the herb — called Artemisinin — and clarify how it worked. The result was a paradigm shift in the medical field that allowed for Artemisinin to be clinically studied. The problem is even though the compound eliminates malaria from a patient’s bloodstream completely within just two days, it takes a long time to cultivate and is hard to grow in some of the places where malaria is most common. Like other antimalarial drugs like quinine, which has not yet been synthesized commercially, it’s hard to create in quantities large enough to sell in the countries that need artemisinin most, until now.

Combined with tobacco plants artemisia can be grown cheaply

Researchers have learned how to genetically engineer tobacco plants to produce artemisinin the active ingredient in sweet wormwood, or Artemisia. The plant has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat fevers, and in the 1970s the compound was extracted by Tu Youyou a Chinese researcher was part of a research group commissioned by Chairman Mao to find malaria treatments for North Vietnamese soldiers. She wondered if traditional remedies could hold promise, and eventually won a Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work.
Since Youyou’s discovery, artemisinin has become the most popular treatment for malaria and is recommended by the World Health Organization as the best available treatment. By inserting the genes of sweet wormwood into the cell nuclei of tobacco, which grows easily in the places wormwood doesn’t, the team was able to hijack the plant’s photosynthetic processes to create artemisinin. Not only does their method produce the compound in a plant that’s hardy enough to withstand the climate of places like India and Africa, where malaria is most common, but it also produces the compound more quickly than wormwood.

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