Traditional Chinese medicine expert wins Nobel Prize

Acupuncture and Oriental medicine colleagues are all abuzz with Tu Youyou, a Chinese scientist and Chinese medicine practitioner who today was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine.


Tu Youyou spearheaded a secret programme set up by Chairman Mao to see if traditional Chinese herbal cures could reduce the number of North Vietnamese troops dying to malaria.

After sifting through thousands of different folk remedies, she finally unearthed a 1,600-year-old recipe using sweet wormwood that formed the basis for one of the most effective treatments ever discovered.
—from: “Nobel Prize for Chinese traditional medicine expert who developed malaria cure,” by Colin Freeman in The Telegraph

Today, fellow acupuncture and Oriental medicine colleagues and I are all abuzz with the news about the Nobel Prize winner for medicine. Tu Youyou, a Chinese scientist who pioneered a treatment for malaria based on Traditional Chinese medicine pharmacology, is a Chinese medicine hero.

Tu Youyou

Tu Youyou. Photo by Reuters

In 1969 Ms Tu was recruited by the Chinese government to research and investigate potential cures for malaria. At the time, the quest for an effective form of treatment had escaped the medical community which had tested over 200,000 different compounds to battle the disease. It wasn’t until Ms Tu began to review a 1,600 year old ancient medical herbal recipe from the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing that she stumbled upon a possible cure. A medical text called, “Emergency Prescription Kept Up One’s Sleeve,” recommended soaking sweet wormwood (artemisia annual herba; Qing Hao [Pin yin]) in hot water and drinking the resulting tea.

According to the story, when Ms. Tu first tried the formula “on mice and monkeys, it proved highly effective, although it then had to be tested to see if it was harmful of humans. As head of the research group, Ms Tu volunteered to be the first test subject herself. Subsequent trials on laborers who had caught malaria while working in dense forests proved that it could banish malarial parasites from the bloodstream within just over a day.” Ms Tu’s research eventually isolated the active ingredient now known as artemisinin.

Ms. Tu, however, was not allowed to publish her findings until 1997, keeping her medical contributions anonymous. It wasn’t until 2005, when Louis Miller, an American research scientist, began to do research on the discovery of artemisinin, that Ms Tu’s legacy was discovered. “Artemisinin-based drugs are now routinely used by pharmaceuticals giants like Sanofi and Novartis in the fight against malaria, which still kills half a million people a year.”

As an acupuncture and Oriental medicine student, we learn hundreds of Chinese herbs and formulas used to treat a number of illnesses ranging from a simple cold-flu to a malarial infection. In school, we learn the value that certain natural medicine remedies continue to exert on people’s health.

Sweet wormwood, or Qing Hao, as we are to remember it in class and for board examinations, is considered a cold herb in temperature that works in the Kidney, Liver, and Gallbladder channels. The herb is prescribed to treat summerheat; it clears fever from deficiency; cools the Blood and stops bleeding; and checks malarial disorders. In addition, Qing Hao is considered to have antibacterial, antimalarial, antipyretic, antiviral and hypotensive properties, and can be found in different Chinese herbal formulas such as Hao Qin Qing Dan Tang, Qing Gu San, and Qing Hao Bie Jia Teng.

Many westerners regard single herbs and herbal formulas as antiquated modes of treatments—the kind grandmothers, curanderos, herbalists, and shamans use in their practice. Western medicine tends to frown upon such remedies as nothing more than folk remedies. However, people forget that herbs, herbal tonics, and tinctures are the forerunners of modern pharmacology, and that many of these treatments have stood the test of time and continue to work.

Since I started working with Chinese herbal formulas and medicine, I’ve discovered the value and importance of this form of medicine. As a student of Chinese medicine, I’ve seen how herbal formulas have proven effective in treating such conditions as urinary tract infections, chronic headaches, lower back pain, menstrual problems, insomnia, and depression.

Most of the formulas in Traditional Chinese medicine’s pharmacology work with the human body since the ingredients are natural and more easily digested, assimilated, and processed by the body. Furthermore, Chinese herbal formulas tend to have none, or very few, side effects when compared to some western remedies.

It goes without saying that when using this form of medicine, it’s important to consult a licensed and board certified acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist to avoid any complication or contraindication. Herbs are medicine after all, and one should use them as prescribed by a licensed practitioner.

To have the Nobel Prize medicine committee recognize this form of medicine and research is good news to me and the Chinese medicine community at large. Today, Ms Tu joins a long list of distinguished Chinese medicine doctors, physicians, and herbalists who have helped many with their findings and research.

About the author Walter

Walter lives and works in and around South Florida. When not practicing or studying acupuncture, you can find him at one of Miami’s beaches, or in a coffee shop lost in the pages of a good book. Walter enjoys diverse interests such as reading Tarot, practicing Qi Gong and Tai Chi, learning Buddhist dharma, practicing shamanic healing, writing for his blogs, reading Oriental philosophy, traveling to new places and old favorites, exploring contemplative photography with his iPhone, sitting quietly in meditation, practicing healthy fitness, and promoting wellbeing.

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