Chinese chemist Tu Youyou slashed malaria mortality rates in Asia and Africa with her work being recently honoured with a Nobel prize in medicine. Whilst those in the general public may not have heard of her directly, her work is appreciated by millions every day – we want to give you a rundown of who she is and why her amazing work is so relevant today.

We first featured Tu in our International Women’s Day article where we celebrated women in the fight against malaria.

INSPIRING: In 1969 Tu was given the challenge of a lifetime. | Photograph: AP

On the 21st January 1969, 39-year-old chemist Tu Youyou was challenged by Mao Zedong a mission that would change the world – to find a drug that will cure for malaria.

At the time, China was in chaos; a significant cultural revolution as the Red Guards ran riot meant universities and schools closing down. Despite the madness, Youyou researched at the Academy of Chinese Traditional Medicine where she was given the daunting challenge.

At the time, malaria was brutalising Chinese soldiers fighting Americans in the jungles of Vietnam. Despite Youyou having no medical degree, no PhD, and having no previous overseas work experience, her potential was seen and an underground unit called Mission 523 was formed with an aim to cure the illness. She shortly became head of the mission.

Artemisinin Malaria Drug Discovery Tu Youyou

Youyou was awarded for her discovery of artemisinin – a drug which has reduced malaria mortality rates. | Photograph: AFP/GETTY

  • The team scoured ancient books and remedies, finding ancient methods of fighting malaria.
  • They found that one active compound found in wormwood: artemisinin appeared to kill ‘malaria-friendly’ parasites.
  • Despite several failed attempts, Youyou was determined and tweaked the drug recipe.
  • She first tested the drug on herself to ensure it was safe

“As the head of the research group, I had the responsibility,”  Youyou told Chinese media.

Shortly after, clinical trials began on Chinese workers to prove the drug’s effectiveness and safety. The drug was a huge success. After decades of trial and error, success and failure, Youyou drive and determination for her mission was and still is admired and thanked by many, her work saving millions of lives.

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