Tu Youyou

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This is a Chinese name; the family name is Tu.
Tu Youyou
Born (1930-12-30) December 30, 1930 (age 84)
Ningbo, Zhejiang, China
Residence Ningbo
Nationality Chinese
Fields Clinical medicine
Medicinal chemistry
Institutions China Academy of Chinese Medical Research
Alma mater Beijing Medical College (now Peking University Health Science Center)
Known for Traditional Chinese medicine
Chinese herbology
Notable awards Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research (2011)
Warren Alpert Foundation Prize (2015)

Tu Youyou (Chinese: 屠呦呦; born 30 December 1930), is a Chinese medical scientist, pharmaceutical chemist, and educator. She won the 2011 Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine for discovering artemisinin (also known as Qinghaosu) and dihydroartemisinin, used to treat malaria, which saved millions of lives. Tu was the first native Chinese to win Lasker award in history who was educated in China and whose work was carried out in China.[1] The discovery of artemisinin and its treatment of malaria is regarded as a significant breakthrough of tropical medicine in the 20th Century and health improvement for people of tropical developing countries in South Asia, Africa, and South America.


Tu carried on her work in the 1960s and 70s during China's Cultural Revolution, when scientists were ranked as the lowest class (aka 'Stinking Old Ninth') in Chinese society according to Mao's theory. But China's ally, North Vietnam, was at war with South Vietnam and the U.S. Malaria was a major cause of death, and evolving resistance to chloroquine. Malaria was also a major cause of death in China's southern provinces including Hainan, Yunnan, Guangxi, and Guangdong. Mao Zedong set up a secret drug discovery project, named Project 523 after its starting date, 23 May 1967.[2]

Scientists worldwide had screened over 240,000 compounds without success. In 1969, Tu, then 39 years old, had an idea of screening Chinese herbs. She first investigated the Chinese medical classics in history, visited old practitioners of Chinese medicine allover the country on her own, and made a notebook namely A Collection of Single Practical Prescriptions for Anti-Malaria. Her notebook summarized 640 prescriptions. Her team also screened over 2,000 traditional Chinese recipes and made 380 herbal extracts, which were tested on mice.[2]

One compound was effective, sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), which was used for "intermittent fevers," a hallmark of malaria. As Tu also presented at the project seminar, its preparation was described in a 1,600-year old text, in a recipe titled, "Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve." At first, it didn't work, because they extracted it with boiling water, the same as recorded in the classic. Tu suggested the hot water had already damaged the active ingredient in the plan, therefore proposed a method using low-temperature ether to extract the effective compound instead. The animal tests showed it was completely effective in mice and monkeys.[2]

Furthermore, Tu volunteered to be the first human subject. "As head of this research group, I had the responsibility," she said. It was safe, so she conducted successful clinical trials with human patients. Her work was published anonymously in 1977.[2]

"It is scientists' responsibility to continue fighting for the healthcare of all humans," said Tu. "What I have done is what I should have done in return for the education provided by my country."[2]

She was grateful for the Lasker award, but said, "I feel more reward when I see so many patients cured."[2]


Tu was born in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, China on 30 December 1930.[3] In 1951, she matriculated at Peking University School of Medicine (In 1952, the Medical School became independent as Beijing Medical College, later renamed Beijing Medical University in 1985. On 3 April 2000, Beijing Medical University was merged with Peking University and is now known as Peking University Health Science Center).[4] Tu studied at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and graduated in 1955. Later Tu was trained for two and a half years in traditional Chinese medicine.

Tu worked at the Academy of Chinese Medicine (now named as China Academy of Chinese Medical Research) in Beijing after graduation. She was promoted to a researcher in 1980 only after the Chinese economic reform, and in 2001 promoted to academic advisor for doctorate candidates. Currently she is the Chief Scientist in the Academy.[5]

Before 2011, Tu had been obscure for decades, and is described as "almost completely forgotten by people".[6]

A 2007 interview shows Tu's living conditions are very poor.[3] Her office is in an old apartment building in Dongcheng District, Beijing, prone to heating shortages, and has only two electrical household appliances - a telephone and a refrigerator, which she uses to store herb samples.[3]

Tu is regarded as the Professor of Three Nos - no postgraduate degree (there was no postgraduate education in then-China), no study or research experience abroad, and not a member of any Chinese national academies, i.e. Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese Academy of Engineering.[7] Up until 1979, there were no postgraduate degree programs in China, and China was largely isolated from the rest of the world. Tu is now regarded as a representative figure of the first generation Chinese medical workers since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.[8]


Tu's husband is a retired factory worker who was her classmate at Xiaoshi Middle School. The two have two daughters, the older is working for the University of Cambridge in England, the younger is living in Beijing. When Tu started her anti-malaria research, her husband was a forced labor (aka 'Laogai') at one of the notorious May Seventh Cadre Schools and the couple's daughter was only a child.



During her early years, Tu studied Lobelia chinensis, a traditional Chinese medicine, for curing Schistosomiasis, which was widely spread in the first half of the 20th century in Southern China.[citation needed]


Tu started her malaria research in China when the Cultural Revolution was in progress. In early 1969, Tu was appointed head of the project, named Project 523 research group at her institute. She collected 2000 candidate recipes, ancient texts, and folk remedies for possible leads for her research. By 1971, her team had made 380 extracts from 200 herbs, and discovered the extracts from Qinghao (Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood) looked particularly promising in dramatically inhibiting Plasmodium growth in animals. Tu found the way to extract it and her innovations boosted potency and slashed toxicity of this extract.[9] In 1972, she and her colleagues obtained the pure substance and named it Qinghaosu (青蒿素) or artemisinin now commonly called in the west,[9][10][11] which has saved millions of lives, especially in the developing world.[12] Tu also studied the chemical structure and pharmacology of artemisinin.[9] Tu'd group first determined the chemical structure of artemisinin. In 1973, Tu wanted to confirm the carbonyl group in the artemisinin molecule therefore accidentally synthesized dihydroartemisinin.


  • 1978, National Science Congress Prize, P.R.China[13]
  • 1979, National Inventor's Prize, P.R.China
  • 1987, Albert Einstein World Science Prize, World Culture Council[13]
  • 1992, (One of the) Ten Science and Technology Achievements in China, State Science Commission, P.R.China[13]
  • 1997, (One of the) Ten Great Public Health Achievements in New China, P.R.China[13]
  • September 2011, GlaxoSmithKline Outstanding Achievement Award in Life Science[14]
  • September 2011, Albert Lasker Award for Clinical Medical Research[15]
  • November 2011, Outstanding Contribution Award, China Academy of Chinese Medical Research[16]
  • February, 2012, (One of the Ten) National Outstanding Females, P.R.China[17]
  • June 2015, Warren Alpert Foundation Prize (co-recipient)[18]


  1. ^ Miller, Louis H.; Su, Xinzhuan (2011). "Artemisinin: Discovery from the Chinese Herbal Garden". Cell 146 (6): 855–8. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2011.08.024. PMC 3414217. PMID 21907397. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f The modest woman who beat malaria for China, by Phil McKenna, New Scientist, 15 November 2011
  3. ^ a b c "Magic Drug Saved Half Billion People" (in Chinese). Phoenix Television News, Hong Kong. 16 March 2007. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  4. ^ "Introduction". Peking University Health Science Center. 2010-10-27. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  5. ^ "Official Biography" (in Chinese). China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences. Retrieved 14 September 2011. 
  6. ^ 屠呦呦膺世界級醫學大獎 (in Chinese). Hong Kong Wen Wei Po. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  7. ^ 屠呦呦获拉斯克奖 评论认为离诺奖只一步之遥 (in Chinese). Sohu News. 13 September 2011. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  8. ^ 屠呦呦:新中国第一代药学家 研发青蒿素 (in Chinese). Sohu News. 29 September 2009. Retrieved 13 September 2011. 
  9. ^ a b c Strauss, Evelyn (September 2011). "Award Description". Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. New York, NY 10017 USA: LASKER FOUNDATION. 
  10. ^ Geoff Brown (2010). "Special Issue Artemisinin (Qinghaosu): Commemorative Issue in Honor of Professor Youyou Tu on the Occasion of her 80th Anniversary". Molecules. Retrieved 14 September 2011. 
  11. ^ Tu, Youyou. "Acceptance remarks by Tu Youyou". Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. New York, NY 10017 USA: LASKER FOUNDATION. Equipped with a sound knowledge in both traditional Chinese medicine and modern pharmaceutical sciences, my team inherited and developed the essence of traditional Chinese medicine using modern science and technology and eventually, we successfully accomplished the discovery and development of Qinghaosu from Qinghao (Artemisia annua L). 
  12. ^ Elizabeth Weise (12 September 2011). "'America's Nobel' awarded to Chinese scientist". USA Today. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  13. ^ a b c d "Tu Youyou 屠呦呦". China Vitae. Retrieved 7 Mar 2012. 
  14. ^ "Chen Zhili Congratulates Lasker Award Winner Tu Youyou". Women of China. September 22, 2011. Retrieved 7 Mar 2012. 
  15. ^ "Tu Youyou". Lasker Foundation. 12 September 2011. Retrieved 12 September 2011. 
  16. ^ "Tu is awarded Outstanding Contribution Award by CACMR" (in Chinese). Xinhua News Agency. 15 November 2011. Retrieved 10 February 2012. 
  17. ^ 吴菊萍屠呦呦获授三八红旗手标兵 (in Chinese). Sina.com News. 2012-02-28. Retrieved 7 Mar 2012. 
  18. ^ Alpert Prize Recognizes Malaria Breakthroughs. Warren Alpert Foundation. 4 Jun 2015. Retrieved 14 Jun 2015.