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Chinese Medicine Researcher Awarded Nobel Prize For Malaria Cure

I was awakened to the amazing news yesterday that Tu Youyou was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. This is the first time for a China-based scientist to win a Nobel Prize in any scientific category in history.

The prize is a tribute to the discovery of a novel anti-malaria drug called artemisinin. For me the recognition is long overdue. As a biomedical scientist, I got to know the drug almost 20 years ago and felt the prestige it has won in the international biomedical community. For the most part, the drug has saved millions of lives around the world, especially in Africa. Second, the drug represents a chemical structure that was unknown existing before and thus provides insight to new molecules and new drug entities.

The drug has long attracted my personal attention for an obvious reason. It is a natural molecule isolated from a Chinese herb named Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood. The Chinese herb has been used and described in literature for treating malaria since the ancient time. So the drug has its origin from the Chinese medicine. In fact, artemisinin is the only drug from China’s pharmaceutical industry that has already won the world acclaim for its originality and health impact before the Nobel Prize. It serves a perfect example of how to draw the knowledge from traditional Chinese medicine and modernize drug development. I joined the admiration on its discovery and endorsed it over a decade ago. The story of artemisinin has been inspirational for many researchers and I am one of them when I switched the career from the mainstream biomedical study to Chinese medicine at ActiveHerb.

While I share the joy of the 84 year old Tu Youyou for being the most critical contributor in the anti-malaria drug discovery, I feel disappointed and embarrassed at where we stand for new drug development from Chinese medicine and in China in general. The discovery was made during China’s Culture Revolution (1966-1976) when scientists were suppressed and scientific research of any kind had to be conducted under extremely difficult conditions. Now 40 years later, China is quickly modernizing and younger generations of scientists are competing on the world stage, yet we are still short of scientific achievements with the same magnitude.

The prize is a welcome news for Chinese medicine and the Chinese people. It may provide some much needed boost in national prestige for science. The prize may also quiet down the criticism that scientific contributions from China are ignored by the world. Ironically, before the news, the Nobel laureate has struggled for recognition in China. She has failed repeatedly in election to become an academician in Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Related reading:
1. The New York Times: Answering an Appeal by Mao Led Tu Youyou, a Chinese Scientist, to a Nobel Prize
2. CNN: Nobel Prize winner Tu Youyou combed ancient Chinese texts for malaria cure

  • Professor B

    This is a great triumph for Chinese medicine in the scientific world! The discovery of the extract from chinese herb, Qing Hao, and the use of modern scientific method to analyze have made a wonder medication to treat malarial diseases that can kill millions of people in the world. This is just one great evidence of how Chinese medicine can make contribution to the medical world.There are so much more in Chinese medicine waiting to be discovered………….let,s keep it going and rolling!

    • Sheldon Li

      Thank you. Totally agree.

  • White Cloud

    Dear Dr. Sheldon Li,
    Your article brings our attention rightfully to the Chinese
    Scientist, Tu Youyou who “was awarded this year’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or
    Medicine. This is the first time for a China-based scientist to win a Nobel
    Prize in any scientific category in history.”

    The article brings out additional interesting and helpful
    information. Here is some of it that has especially drawn my attention to.

    1) The prize is a tribute to the discovery of a
    novel anti-malaria drug called artemisinin.”
    2) “For me (Dr. Li) the recognition is long
    overdue. As a biomedical scientist, I got to know the drug almost 20 years ago
    and felt the prestige it has won in the international biomedical community.”
    3) “It is a natural molecule isolated from a
    Chinese herb named Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood.
    4) The Chinese herb has been used and described in
    literature for treating malaria since the ancient time

    Here is why my attention is taken by 1)-4). Item 4) points
    out that Chinese herbal medicine has been able to treat malaria since ancient
    times. The drug artimisinin, isolated from the Chinese Herb sweet wormwood (I
    call this herb a Chinese Herb for the following reason. Item 3) tells us that
    its use for treating malaria is known since ancient time comes. This must be entirely
    due to the use of this herb within the frame of mind of Chinese metaphysics and
    Chinese Herbal Medicine. That use has not come from Western Science, Medical or
    otherwise.)

    Thus the items 1)-4) bring up immediately a natural question
    for me as a buyer of Chinese Herbal products from Active Herb.

    What advantage does the drug artemisinin has with respect to
    the ancient Chinese herbal treatments for malaria, which have not used drugs at
    all?

    However, my question may need be rephrased as I think the
    use of drugs and the use of Chinese Herbal formulas may not have the same
    fields of application. For example, an epidemic may need stronger requirements
    for the speed of treatment administration and the speed of recovery, than an
    individual or a small group of people would.

    I would appreciate your comments on this.

    Additional question is also related to drug use versus Chinese
    Herbal formulas use. The latter are used within a far clearer model of the phenomena
    of the health and illness. That model is given by Chinese Metaphysics (such as
    5 arts which include Medicine). Western Medicine does not have a coherent model
    (or any model for that matter comparable to the clarity of the models used in
    the fields of applications such as we see in physics, quantum physics, physical
    chemistry, hydrodynamics…, as well as to Chinese Metaphysics) for health and
    illness. This is especially true in my opinion within the field of applications,
    where Western Science uses drugs and biochemistry.

    My question is how does one compare Chinese herbal Medicine
    based on Chinese metaphysics to a constant discovery process used in
    bio-chemistry and/or discovery not guided by any model of health and sickness?
    In the latter case, it is not clear at all what the outcomes of treatment are.

    Thank you.
    Alexander Yakhnis, PhD (mathematics)

    • Sheldon Li

      Hi Alex,
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Many Chinese herbs have been used traditionally for fighting malaria. Each herb contains hundreds of compounds of which only one or a few have the right anti-malaria property. The challenge was to find what is that one or few active compounds. This is a hard process of purification and elimination. It turned out the purification method was crucial in getting artimisinin as the compound is heat sensitive and the traditional use of the herb already pointed to an unheated extraction, which gave Ms. Tu the clue for a low temperature extraction. After the purification, we get the pure and most potent single compound that works with 100% efficacy at a tiny amount. This is a huge leap forward compared to the herb itself. It can now be industrialized in production and quickly deployed worldwide to combat malaria.

      • White Cloud

        Hi Sheldon,
        Thank you for giving us the focus of Dr. Tu Youyou research on
        malaria:

        [Many Chinese herbs have been used traditionally for
        fighting malaria. Each herb contains hundreds of compounds of which only one or a few have the right anti-malaria property. The challenge was to find what is that one or few active compounds.]

        You have also pointed out the main insight that Dr. Tu has
        used:

        [the traditional use of the herb already pointed to an
        unheated extraction, which gave Ms. Tu the clue for a low temperature
        extraction.]

        You have also clarified for us the contribution of Dr. Tu
        research by stating:

        [This is a huge leap forward compared to the herb itself. It
        can now be industrialized in production and quickly deployed worldwide to
        combat malaria.]

        This is all done incisively, clearly, and compactly. I
        really enjoy your reply. In addition, this helps me to restate my original
        questions far more compactly, than I have done in my first message to you.

        Below I give abbreviations to the 2 distinct principles of treatment that Western Medicine uses (on one hand) and the Chinese Herbal Medicine uses on the other hand.

        Chinese Herbal Medicine (CHB) traditionally does not look
        for (WEST) active chemical compounds in herbs or herbal formulas (in order to stop infection).

        (BALANCE) Instead, CHB attempts to re balance the subtle
        substances and their flows in the infected person (organ Chi(s), Shen(s), and Jing) so that new equilibrium that these substances and flows arrive at destroys the infection and healthy state of the person results. This happens (in case of success) upon the consumption of an herbal formula or a single herb (in some cases.)

        Thus Dr. Tu was working primarily within Western medicine
        frame of mind looking for active chemical ingredient that is capable to destroy the malaria infection. My first message was focusing on the fundamental the difference between the principle of healing in Chinese Herbal Medicine (BALANCE) and that of Western Medicine, I have abbreviated it as WEST above.

        The principle of BALANCE remind us how scientists deal with
        physical systems that result as combination of other systems. The principle
        (WEST) in comparison looks a bit too special. However, your post indicates that this very special principle can be effective in situations such as malaria
        infection.

        It seems to me that the principle of BALANCE is more general,
        than is the principle WEST. BALANCE applies for all kinds of diseases including chronic illnesses that do not necessarily result from infections.

        What do you think, Sir?

        Many thanks.

        All the best,

        Alex

        • Sheldon Li

          Hi Alex,

          You are welcome. Chinese medicine are survived and valued for their real health benefits and are generally framed in the Chinese medicine theory. You are right that traditionally they are not studied to get active ingredients, but as we know from modern sciences any action has to be carried by substance, a large effort has been devoted to find those substances as highlighted by the anti-malaria drug.

          The Chinese medicine theory is itself versatile and includes not only balancing Yin, Yang, Qi etc. but also detoxifying etc. For example, artemisia (Qing Hao in Chinese) is defined as stopping malaria along with other functions in TCM. Ultimately, all Chinese medicine can be said to act to keep various body function balanced and in harmony.

          Thank you.

          • White Cloud

            Hi Sheldon,

            Thank you for another delightful message.

            [Chinese medicine are survived and valued for their real
            health benefits and are generally framed in the Chinese medicine theory.] Sure.

            Large part of this theory is based on Chinese metaphysics
            and is straight such metaphysics. In addition, Chinese metaphysics directly frames qigong and huge variety of health and longevity practices categorized
            under Shan (Mountain) usually listed first among the Chinese 5 Arts of the Chinese Metaphysics. My view on these subjects is that they are on a par with
            modern theoretical physics including quantum physics with respect to enumerating and formulating fundamental laws of the Universe and human life. I am not alone. There is a search among the modern scientists for a new paradigm which aims at merging modern science with the above kind of metaphysics in order to better capture the phenomena of life including out of body experiences and all paranormal phenomena. But the latter are well known in Chinese lineages such as Dragon Gate (Long Meng Pai). There are books by prominent scientists such as Dr. John Bockris (Physical Chemistry, 700 publications) “The New Paradigm”, 504 pages, 2004, D &M Enterprises Publisher, Texas 77871. It points out that much of the phenomena we observe
            such as paranormal ones as well as healing ones, cannot be explained by modern science. Hence the need for a new paradigm. There are regular conferences on
            these matters, in particular on the nature of consciousness or mind. I have attended and delivered presentations on 2 (2008 and 2009, I believe; One was at University of Arizona, USA, another one at one the Hong Kong Universities) of among many which go on at other paces and times. Interestingly, the participants, included physicists, psychologist, medical doctors, and medical researchers, philosophers,…

            […as we know from modern sciences any action has to be
            carried by substance…]

            Within the context of our messages by the word substance in
            this message, you most likely mean material substance such as molecule or atom or a chemical ingredient in an herb. I have not seen a statement within modern Science that would be equivalent to what you have just said. But I know of the facts that contradict your statement.

            1) I can relieve the condition of discomfort in my heart by circulating earth qi through my body including heart and legs without consuming any physical substance. I am
            not using any kind of physical effects such as electricity, heat, or any physical object outside of my body.

            2) The entire position of Chinese Herbal Medicine
            and its theory is entirely contradictory to the idea of active ingredient. The active substances of Chinese herbs are substances which are not material: Shen, Jing, and qi. Among these 3, qi is actually material but is very subtle, and usually not considered in chemical terms. For example, say, someone with palpitations of the heart, discomfort in
            the heart area is diagnosed as having kidney yin deficiency and heart fire. This patient will be given an herbal formula which would supplement kidney yin by contributing cooling qi to the kidneys. This formula would also contribute
            cooling qi to the heart and lung as well as contribute jing to the kidney. This would be accomplished by having ingredients in the herbal formula that have these respective substances. There is no chemistry used in the entire analysis of the patient condition and no chemistry used in the construction of the formula (Da Bu Yin Wan). Active Herbs sells a version of Da Bu Yin Wan with 5
            ingredients. I use Min Shan brand with 4 ingredients.

            3) The diagnosis in 2) is about disharmony between
            kidney and heart. Basically, kidney cannot cool the heart. The natural solution is to supplement heart and kidney by adding cool qi to each. On the other hand, the idea of active ingredient is to find a killer for the invading
            microorganism. This appears to be totally irrelevant to the patient’s problem in this case. Similar situation occurs with respect to many chronic illnesses. The drugs are not effective to cure them, because they are not easy to frame to fit the patients’ health symptoms. The success of Chinese Traditional Medicine is in its ability to frame the symptoms in such a way that the cure can be
            devised in a natural way.

            4) I am not suggesting that the idea of active
            ingredient is irrelevant, but only that the idea of active ingredient is only useful where it could help the patients.

            [The Chinese medicine theory is itself versatile and
            includes not only balancing Yin, Yang, Qi etc. but also detoxifying etc.] The description of a herb in Chinese Herbal Medicine include special properties of the herb, such as inducing urination, bowel movement, or anything else of note
            to the basics characteristics such as Yin Yang, Qi meridians entered, temperature, taste…

            Here is how Qing Hao described in the large collection of
            single Chinese Herbs by John and Tina Chen (1600 pages):

            The description is partial, but there is no term
            detoxification that is used in it. Page 244-246.

            Properties: bitter, acrid, cold.

            Channels entered: Liver, Gallbladder, Stomach.

            Chinese Therapeutic Actions

            1. Clears Heat and Treats Malaria. Large paragraph follows

            2. Clears Yin –Deficient Heat. Paragraph follows.

            3. Cools blood. 2 paragraphs follow

            4. Clears summer Heat or damp Heat. Large paragraph
            follows.

            5.
            Clears Liver Heat and Brightens the eyes. 2 paragraphs
            follow.

            CAUTIONS/ CONTRAINDICATIONS

            A. Cautions for deficiency and cold of the Spleen
            and Stomach

            B. Qing Hao could be cooked only for short period
            of time, as heat may make the herb less effective.

            The above description, in my view, has nothing in it that
            suggests that derivation of an active ingredient is useful or desirable.. However, this is not to say that such reasons cannot be given outside of the theoretical frame of Traditional or Classical Chinese Medicine.

            Thank you,

            Alex