China’s Tu Youyou, Irish-born William Campbell, and Japan’s Satoshi Omura jointly won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, the Nobel Assembly at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute announced on Monday.
— The Nobel Prize (@NobelPrize) October 5, 2015
Tu Youyou, the first-ever Chinese medicine laureate, will share the 8 million Swedish kronor (about $960,000) award with Japanese microbiologist Satoshi Omura and William Campbell, an Irish-born U.S. scientist.
Tu was cited for discovering artemisinin, a drug that’s now the primary treatment against malaria, saving millions of lives worldwide. Inspired by Chinese traditional medicine, she made her discovery while working on a malaria project for the Chinese military.
Tu, 84, is chief professor at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. As a junior researcher, she was recruited by the Chinese government to work on a military project in 1969 to find malaria drugs.
She turned to herbal medicine to discover a new malarial agent in an extract from the sweet wormwood plant. The agent, artemisinin (pronounced ar-tuh-MIHS’-ihn-ihn), was highly effective against malaria, a disease that was on the rise in the 1960s, the committee said.
Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that still kills around 500,000 people a year, mostly in Africa, despite efforts to control it.
Colin Sutherland, reader in parasitology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that the impact of artemesinin had been profound. It’s so widely used across the world that there’s a risk of resistance problems.
“The writing is on the wall already. We probably have about five to 10 years of effective use of artemesinins before resistance becomes a problem,” he said.
“WHO welcomes the decision to award the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of artemisinin. It is a great tribute to the contribution of the Chinese scientific community in the fight against malaria. Artemisinin compounds have become the mainstay of malaria treatment over the past 15 years. They are used in combination therapy to reduce the risk of the development of resistance. All countries in need with P. falciparum malaria have adopted artemisinin-based combination therapies as first-line treatment for malaria and have made these medicines available in the public sector. Since 2000, more than 1 billion artemisinin-based treatment courses have been administered to malaria patients,” says the latest statement by WHO.
WHO says artemisinin resistance has already been confirmed in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
There have been several previous Nobel Prizes for malaria research, including the 1902 award to British army surgeon Ronald Ross, who discovered the disease is transmitted by mosquitos.
Omura and Campbell discovered another drug, avermectin, whose derivatives have helped fight river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. Those diseases are caused by parasitic worms and affect millions of people in Africa and Asia.
The Nobel committee said the winners, who are all in their 80s and made their breakthroughs in the 1970s and ’80s, had given humankind powerful tools to combat debilitating diseases.
“The two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually,” the committee said. “The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable.”
Besides the cash prize, each winner also gets a diploma and a gold medal at the annual award ceremony on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of prize founder Alfred Nobel.
Story compiled with information from AP, Xinhua.