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Chinese Herbal Medicine Expert Gets Nobel Prize

Dr. Tu Youyou (Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing) received both the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine and the Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for developing an herbal based cure for malaria. Dr. Tu headed Project 523, a top secret Chinese military project seeking the cure for malaria in  the late 1960s.

Dr. Tu Youyou

The Vietnam War was raging and the troops were suffering from malaria. By 1972, Dr. Tu’s team extracted Qinghaosu (artemisinin) from Qing Hao (Artemisia annua) and had successfully isolated a cure for malaria. Qinghaosu is safe for human consumption but is lethal to Plasmodia, the parasitic protozoans responsible for malaria.

Dr. Tu investigated the efficacy of Qing Hao for the treatment of malaria because it was already in use for that purpose amoung Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) herbalist-acupuncturists. As early as 340 CE, Ge Hong included Qing Hao as a cure for malaria in the classic work the Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. Dr. Tu was familiar with this seminal classic of TCM. She then applied modern extraction techniques to concentrate the efficacy of the herb Qing Hao.

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Instead of using a traditional high temperature water concentration method, Dr. Tu used a low temperature ether extraction method to preserve the active ingredients. Dr. Tu made several other important findings. She identified that the leaves contained the most significant amount of the active ingredients. She also determined the optimal time to harvest the plant to sustain maximum yields. In the process, she also removed acidic portions of the concentrate that did not provide anti-malarial benefits. As a result, the final concentrate was safe, potent, and effective. Qinghaosu rapidly reduces fevers and eliminates blood bourne parasites in patients with malaria.

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