For centuries, malaria has ravaged much of the underdeveloped world — including Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Economic losses in the Motherland amount to $12 billion annually via increased health care costs and loss of productivity and tourism profits.
Even so, millions of people have overcome malaria, thanks to the efforts of Chinese researcher Youyou Tu. In the late 1960s, Tu discovered the naturally-based compound artemisinin while studying traditional Chinese medicine. Her team collected 380 extracts from 200 herbs that were mentioned in ancient Chinese literature as potential remedies for the symptoms of malaria. While resistance to the drug is on the rise in parts of Southeast Asia, artemisinin has since been an active ingredient in global malaria treatment.
This week — in what perhaps represents the conventional medicine’s growing acceptance of indigenous traditions — the Nobel Prize committee recognized Tu for her medical breakthrough.
“From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua,” the Nobel Prize committee said on its website.
“Tu was the first to show that this component, later called artemisinin, was highly effective against the malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in human,” the committed added.
The Western world’s acknowledgement of Tu’s discovery is decades in the making. American and European doctors didn’t catch on to arteminsia until the 1980s, when they learned about its ability to treat malaria, certain cancers, and schistosomiasis — a disease caused by parasitic worms in tropical and subtropical countries. It would take the World Health Organization another 24 years to approve artemisinin’s use, partly because about skepticism about ancient Chinese medical traditions.
Despite its more than 4,000-year history, detractors say traditional Chinese medicine stems from a superstition-based culture that predates modern medicine. They also say the medicine’s reliance on anecdotal evidence goes against what the reliability of scientifically controlled experiments that have proven the efficacy of conventional medicines and therapies.
However, Chinese medical practitioners have pushed back against that view, arguing that opening up to traditional medicine could help advance conventional treatments — especially as developments of new medications are hampered by a lengthy research process and growing drug resistance has rendered some drugs useless.
During his 2012 keynote address at a traditional Chinese medicine conference, Dr. George Y.C. Wong said that, unlike Western medicine, ancient Chinese treatments take into account patients’ individual characteristics and the connection between the body and mind. Citing his research
, he showed how traditional Chinese medicine could naturally prevent or mitigate breast cancer by regulating estrogen levels.
Wong wrapped up his keynote by suggesting that traditional Chinese medical practitioners and Western doctors patiently explain their viewpoints and come to an understanding that allows them to combine both schools of thought.
Three years later, that’s becoming more of a possibility. As more Americans grow distrustful of doctors, traditional Chinese medicine and other non-Western practices have grown in appeal. One survey conducted earlier this year showed that young cancer patients eager to ease the symptoms and side effects of chemotherapy have turned to traditional treatment. In response, hospitals across the country have started to integrate their health care with Eastern-based treatments and therapies — including acupuncture, massage therapy, and herbal medicine. And some medical schools now include these practices in their curricula, creating a field known as “complementary medicine,” which allows doctors to infuse conventional and alternative medical practices to their patients’ liking.
Globally, the medical community may be changing its tune. Tu counted among three recipients of the Nobel Prize in medicine, all of whom used natural-based remedies against parasites. William Campbell, an Irish-born researcher who lives in New Jersey, and Satoshi Omura, who is from Japan, both won for their discovery of avermectin, which was developed into ivermectin, a treatment for river blindness. These drugs have replaced their quinine-based counterparts which have proven ineffective in years past.
Stephen Ward of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine in the United Kingdom told Nature that the science community’s recognition of the trio’s achievements could pave the way for more breakthroughs with nontraditional origins.
“It may refocus us on the idea that the immense diversity of products out there in the natural world is a great starting point for drug discovery,” he said.