I’m sure I’m not the only one surprised by the announcement that half of the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has gone to a researcher who spent her entire career researching traditional Chinese medicine. Based at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing (now the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences) since 1965, scientist Youyou Tu, her colleagues, and home institution may well be just as stunned today as I am.
Being granted the Lasker Award is often a good predictor of Nobel Prize prospects. Tu received one in 2011 for her discovery of Artemisinin as an alternative malaria cure to the standard chloroquine, which was quickly losing ground in the 1960s due to increasingly drug-resistant parasites. Scientific research on the pharmaceutically active properties of traditional Chinese medicinals, however, has never been a predictor for such widespread international recognition.
Traditional medical knowledge anywhere in the world has not even been on the radar for Nobel Prize prospects. Until now, that is. So how should we interpret this arguably seismic shift in international attention on traditional Chinese medicine?
Discoveries to be made in historical record
In the question-and-answer session after the announcement at the Karolinska Institute, which awards the Nobels, one of the panelists emphasized not just the quality of Tu’s scientific research, but also the value of recorded empirical experience in the past.
The antifebrile effect of the Chinese herb Artemisia annua (qinghaosu 青蒿素), or sweet wormwood, was known 1,700 years ago, he noted. Tu was the first to extract the biologically active component of the herb – called Artemisinin – and clarify how it worked. The result was a paradigm shift in the medical field that allowed for Artemisinin to be both clinically studied and produced on a large scale.
Tu has always maintained that she drew her inspiration from the medical text of a fourth-century Chinese physician and alchemist named Ge Hong 葛洪 (circa 283-343).
His Emergency Formulas To Keep at Hand (Zhouhou beijifang 肘後備急方) can best be understood as a practical handbook of drug formulas for emergencies. It was a book light enough to keep “behind the elbow” (zhouhou), namely, in one’s sleeve, where Chinese men sometimes carried their belongings. We can discern from Ge’s astute description of his patients’ symptoms that people then suffered not only from malaria but also from other deadly diseases including smallpox, typhoid and dysentery.
Beyond recording the fever-fighting qualities of Artemisia annua, Physician Ge also wrote about how Ephedra sinica (mahuang 麻黃) effectively treated respiratory problems and how arsenic sulphide (“red Realgar,” xionghuang 雄黃) helped control some dermatological problems.
Traditional ingredients, modern drugs
Just because a compound has natural roots and has long been used in traditional medicine is no reason to take it lightly.
You might remember that in 2004, the FDA actually banned ephedra-containing dietary and performance-enhancing supplements. They’d been the cause not only of serious side effects but also several deaths. The ban remains in effect in the US despite a court challenge from ephedra manufacturers. Related drug ephedrine, however, is used to treat low blood pressure and is a common ingredient in over-the-counter asthma medicines.
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