Tu Youyou, China’s first Nobel laureate for medicine, described her discovery of the anti-malaria treatment artemisinin as Western medicine inspired by long-established knowledge from traditional Chinese medicine.
“The discovery of artemisinin is a lifesaving gift to human beings from TCM. A combination of TCM knowledge and standard Western medicine procedures led to the success,” the pharmacologist said on Oct 8.
Tu, 85, made the remarks at a forum in Beijing sponsored by the State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine that was attended by top Chinese experts both in TCM and Western medicine.
The award has triggered a lively debate among netizens about whether the Nobel prize is a recognition of TCM.
Searching for a new anti-malaria treatment, Tu searched through ancient Chinese medical books and interviewed hundreds of experienced TCM doctors in the early 1970s, she said. She eventually found that coldly squeezed qinghao (Artemisia apiacea) could cure malaria, as described in The Manual of Clinical Practice and Emergency Remedies by TCM master Ge Hong of the Eastern Jin Dynasty (AD 317-420).
“The task assigned by the government was to conduct research for a new drug from traditional Chinese herbal medicine to fight against malaria,” Tu said.
She called for greater involvement by Western medical experts in research and scientific innovations related to TCM.
Chen Zhu, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and a former minister of health, emphasized the importance of a multidisciplinary approach to medical research and drug development. Chen noted that great findings have been inspired by TCM classics and brought to fruition via Western medicine’s methods.
Chen, a world-famous specialist in leukemia, and fellow Chinese scientist Wang Zhenyi integrated the use of arsenic trioxide with Western approaches for the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia, an effort that led to a cure for the disease.
“That was also inspired by TCM books from ancient China,” Chen said.
Li Bin, minister of China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission, said the Chinese government would further push innovation of TCM, making a contribution to all people’s health and happiness.
Zhang Boli, president of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing, where Tu was once a researcher, said Tu’s Nobel Prize has reaffirmed a multidisciplinary approach for TCM’s future development and innovation, “with an ultimate goal to improve human health”.
Zhang called for more respect and support for TCM and welcomed Western medical researchers to join the effort to make better use of TCM－“a time-honored medical science.”
Juleen R. Zierath, chairwoman of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, backed the idea.
TCM herbs have great potential for treating diseases with the methods of modern pharmaceutical extraction, she said.
Tu referred to TCM as “a great treasury” that requires more in-depth scientific research to play an even greater role.
“My best time for scientific research has gone and I hope the country will soon set up the mechanism to encourage and facilitate young researchers in particular to carry out scientific innovations,” Tu said.