China's Nobel Medicine prize winner, 84, not really surprised by win

Dr Tu Youyou attending an award ceremony in Beijing, on Nov 15, 2011.
Dr Tu Youyou attending an award ceremony in Beijing, on Nov 15, 2011. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - One of this year's Nobel medicine laureates, China's Dr Tu Youyou, said Tuesday she was "not really surprised" to win, telling the local press the award was an honour for all the country's scientists.

"We carried out this research over a number of decades, so to win this award was not a surprise," the 84-year-old told the Qianjiang Evening News from her home in Zhejiang.

Dr Tu won half of the award for her work on artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug based on ancient Chinese herbal medicine, it was announced on Monday (Oct 5).

Derived from a herb used to treat fevers some 1,700 years ago, the drug revolutionised cures for malaria and is credited with saving millions of lives.

"I was a little bit surprised, but not really," she said of the moment she learnt of the award as she watched television.

"It's because (this prize) is not an honour just for me, but an honour for all Chinese scientists."

Husband Li Tingzhao told AFP that Dr Tu, who suffers from diabetes and ailing health, was "very tired" on account of the attention she has received since the announcement.

"She doesn't go out often" and was not thinking about holding a press conference, Mr Li said.

He did not know whether the retired traditional medicine specialist would be fit to travel to the awards ceremony at the end of this year.

In the late 1960s, Dr Tu and a team investigated more than 2,000 Chinese herb preparations and at first identified 640 that had possible antimalarial activity - but with no significant results in experiments with mice except for one: Artemisia annua extract.

But when these promising results could not be replicated, the team were befuddled. They turned to ancient Chinese literature for help, finding the answer in the writings of alchemist Ge Hong, who died in the year 343.

In "A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies", Ge described Artemisia's properties for reducing the symptoms of malaria and gave this tip: "A handful of qinghao immersed with two litres of water, wring out the juice and drink it all."

Centuries later, his words were a lightbulb moment. "This sentence gave me the idea that the heating involved in the conventional extraction step we had used might have destroyed the active components," Dr Tu wrote in a 2011 article.

The researchers were working at the height of the Mao Zedong's chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which saw large numbers of people, including academics, persecuted.

The team had no way to test the product on conventional lab animals, but they were so confident in its safety that they tested it on themselves.

Dr Tu, who won the prestigious Albert-Lasker in 2011 and has long been considered a frontrunner for the Nobel, has described artemisinin as "a true gift from old Chinese medicine".

The 2015 Nobel prize for medicine was also awarded to Dr William Campbell, an Irish-born American, and Japan's Dr Satoshi Omura.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang on Monday evening congratulated Dr Tu, saying the award "reflects the dynamic progress of Chinese science and technology".