On Monday 5th October, 2015, The Nobel Assembly announced the award of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine. This year’s Nobel Laureates developed therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating diseases caused by parasites. Two laureates were cited for discoveries concerning a therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites. Youyou Tu was rewarded for her research on malaria therapy.
It was Tu, who inspired by a description in a 1,700-year-old Chinese text of the use of sweet wormwood to combat fever, discovered artemisinin. The medicine remains the most effective treatment for malaria today and has saved millions of lives.
Chloroquine-resistant Plasmodium falciparum (CRPF) strains first emerged in South America and Southeast Asia in the late 1950s and early 1960s. By the late 1960s, efforts to eradicate malaria had failed, and the disease was on the rise. At that time, Tu turned to traditional herbal medicine to tackle the challenge of developing novel malaria therapies. In China, the qinghaosu plant was used in fever remedies for 2,000 years. Tu examined 2,000 recipes for traditional Chinese remedies. One derived from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) reduced malaria parasites in the blood. Tu was the first test subject.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been committed to fighting malaria since the 1950s and has contributed to the development of the tools relied on today. For example, USAID funded trials showed that mosquito nets, treated with safe insecticide, were effective in significantly reducing child morbidity and mortality and preventing malaria in pregnancy.
The U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), launched in 2005, represents the U.S. Government’s bilateral commitment to massively scale up proven malaria prevention and control efforts. PMI, led by USAID, has advanced game-changing innovations, like insecticide-treated mosquito nets and more effective drugs. USAID, through PMI, funds operational research to improve uptake and scale of interventions, to preserve intervention effectiveness in the face of resistance, and to assess how to incorporate new interventions and approaches and adjust current interventions in response to changes in malaria epidemiology.
Through the expansion of malaria control efforts by affected countries, with the support of PMI and other key partners, more than 6 million deaths have been averted, primarily among children less than five years of age in sub-Saharan Africa. This level of success would not have been achieved without access to high quality malaria treatments, diagnostics, and vector control tools. Since the initiative began, PMI has procured more than 318 million quality-assured artemisin combination therapies (ACTs), as well as more than 174 million rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) to support appropriate malaria case management.
The financial and technical contributions of the U.S. Government are a major catalyst in the remarkable progress that has been achieved in many countries to reduce the devastating burden of malaria. But, the work is far from complete. Nearly half a million people die each year from the preventable and treatable disease. When children fall ill, students miss school, and adults stop work and are unable to provide for their families.
We admire Youyou Tu for her inspiration and perseverance and celebrate her discovery.