There’s a common refrain you’ll find on Skeptoid blog entries about traditional out alternative medicines: “Alternative medicine that works is just called medicine.” A lot of this stuff comes from supposedly ancient Chinese treatments of questionable derivation. One recent example is goji berries, which boast a long heritage, but appear to be basically unheard of anywhere in the world before they began to be marketed in the West in the late 1990s.
However, many of our drugs are derived from plant sources: opiates, topical analgesics, aspirin, and so on. One of this year’s Nobel Prize winners in medicine is Tu Youyou, who receives the prize for groundbreaking antimalaria research. The drug she developed, artemisnin, is based on a chemical found in Artemisia (also called Sweet Wormwood), which had been used as a malaria treatment for about 2,000 years.
Tu was working in China during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. At the time, being an intellectual or someone with higher education automatically made one suspect in the eyes of China’s totalitarian regime. But Tu was selected to help develop an antimalarial drug for China’s allies in the North Vietnamese military. The project was kept secret, but in 1967 several hundred doctors, some from universities that had recently been closed by Mao, were convened to work on the problem.
They discovered a bevy of effective treatments, extracted from plants or synthesized in a lab. These drugs dramatically changed malaria treatment by radically shortening infection times, lowering death rates, and decreasing the severity of infections. The most famous of the drugs, at least by now, is Artemisnin, for which she is receives the award. (She shares it with Drs. William Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for their work in treating parasites.)
So how did Tu discover the drug? First she combed through old texts from scholars of Chinese medicine. After finding 5,000 candidates they then tested each one rigorously and recorded and analyzed the results. Several plants were found to be useful. After that they determined which chemicals in each plant were effective, how best to get the most chemicals from each plant (artemisnin is best extracted from fresh plants), how to purify and administer it, and what doses are most effective. They found or developed analogues of several chemicals and determined which of those worked best. They started with traditional medicine and refined it the best possible treatments found in nature. They didn’t assume that antiquity was synonymous with perfection, and it wasn’t. They turned it into regular medicine, and saved millions of lives in the process.
What can we take away from this? Lots. First, the adage remains true: “Alternative medicine that works is just called medicine.” Tu took a folk remedy and developed it into a drug treatment that’s more effective and reliable than the original. Good science trumps ideology: Mao thought intellectuals were holding China back, but when push came to shove he realized that his nation and its allies were dependent on good science, more so than they were on the dogma they had used to deny it. More often than not, good work is invisible, but no less good. Meaning that Tu is now receiving the Nobel Prize almost 50 years after her research showed how great its effects could be. And during that time countless lives were spared death and suffering because of innovations by Tu and her colleagues. And although she did win the prize, there are no doubt many times as many scientists who are equally deserving, who equally saved lives or changed the world or made revolutionary innovations, but whose work is not widely recognized by the general public. I personally was reminded of how lucky I am to have access to modern implements and medicines, that I’ve never had to worry about malaria, which threatens hundreds of thousands of people.
Congratulations to Dr. Tu and to all of this year’s Nobel winners in the sciences!