Qinghao (Herba Artemisiae Annuae), a TCM herb, provided the basis for an anti-malaria formula, since the protozoan had become resistant to quinine, an older medication used for treating the pathogen. This “new” discovery had been revealed in Ge Hong’s A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies (肘后备急方), an ancient medical and scientific document. In 1972, after screening over 2000 different Chinese herbs, phytochemist and researcher Youyou Tu and a cohort of scientists uncovered the exact formulation of artemisinin (qinghaosu 青蒿素) and dihydroartemisinin from Qinghao.

A graduate of the Department of Pharmaceutics at Beijing Medical College, Tu was chosen to join the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences and currently holds the highest ranking post of Chief Scientist in the Academy. According to Professor Tu, malaria was one of the epidemic diseases with the most comprehensive records in TCM literature. She found a landmark quote for alleviating malaria fevers that motivated the research: “A handful of Qinghao immersed in two liters of water, wring out the juice and drink it all” (青蒿一握, 以水二升渍, 绞取汁, 尽服之). Tu experimented with lower heat during extraction using water, ethanol, and ether ester to arrive at dihydroartemisinin, which proved to be a clinically effective compound in curing malaria.

Due to the relentless efforts of Tu and her research team over several decades, more than 200 million malaria patients have received artemisinin or artemisinin combination therapies. In 2015, Youyou Tu was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine with William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura; this was the first time a Chinese scientist had won the coveted award.

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