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2011 Lasker Awards Honor Medical Research Pioneers
Date:9/12/2011

, 81, for saving millions of lives by discovering artemisinin, the most powerful anti-malarial drug currently available. An artemisinin-based drug combination is now the standard regimen for the disease, and the World Health Organization (WHO) lists artemisinin and related agents in its catalog of "Essential Medicines."

Tu's seminal work on malaria began amid the Cultural Revolution when the Chinese government launched a clandestine military project aimed at finding a remedy for the deadly scourge. The operation, dubbed Project 523 for the day it was announced – May 23, 1967 – set out to battle chloroquine-resistant malaria.

In keeping with Chairman Mao Zedong's desire to "explore and further improve" the "great treasure house" of traditional Chinese medicine, Tu combed ancient texts and folk remedies for possible leads. She collected 2000 recipes, which were then winnowed. By 1971, her team had made 380 extracts from 200 herbs. The researchers then assessed whether these substances could clear the malaria-causing parasite from infected mice.

One of the extracts from QinghaoArtemisia annua L., or sweet wormwood – dramatically inhibited parasite growth in the animals. The results were not reproducible, so Tu once again scoured the literature for possible explanations. Following clues, she and her team performed the extraction process at low temperatures. Tu's team also removed a harmful acidic portion of the extract that did not contribute to antimalarial activity and refined the preparation of the material in other ways. These innovations boosted potency and slashed toxicity. At a March 1972 meeting of the Project 523 group's key participants, she reported that the neutral plant extract wiped out the malarial-causing agent in the blood of mice and monkeys. A pure substance was obtained later that year which proved effective in treating people with malaria.

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