Award for malaria drug discovery reignites row

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 September, 2011, 12:00am


A Chinese professor who helped to discover an anti-malarial drug that saved millions of lives was presented with an award considered to be as prestigious as the Nobel Prize by scientists in New York on Friday.

The accolade has sparked controversy, however. Professor Tu Youyou received a cheque for US$250,000 from the Lasker Foundation after a distinguished jury of Western scientists decided to honour her contribution to the development of artemisinin - qinghaosu in Chinese - with the Clinical Medical Research Award. But mainland scientists say national leaders and scientific authorities were uncomfortable with giving one individual the credit for years of research in a top secret project that involved hundreds of scientists.

Tu worked on the drug's development in the 1960s and '70s as part of a team at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. They delved into ancient folklore to discover that sweet wormwood had traditionally been used to fight malaria. She refined the extraction process, eliminating the use of boiling water and instead using ether, and began a search for the active ingredient.

'Tu pioneered a new approach to malaria treatment that has benefited hundreds of millions of people and promises to benefit many times more,' wrote Evelyn Strauss of the Lasker Foundation in the award citation. 'By applying modern techniques and rigour to a heritage provided by 5,000 years of Chinese traditional practitioners, she has delivered its riches into the 21st century.'

Yet while sports stars such as 2004 Olympic hurdles champion Liu Xiang have received letters of congratulation from state leaders like Vice-President Xi Jinping, Tu's was from the president of the Women's Union, Chen Zhili .

'Professor Tu has made an extraordinary discovery, but like most extraordinary scientists she has an extraordinary personality, believing more in herself than collective wisdom,' a scientist with the Chinese Academy of Sciences said yesterday, on condition of anonymity. 'Such a personality has made her a heroine in the west but a rebel in China.'

In an interview with Science Weekly magazine before the award was announced, Tu said: 'The discovery of artemisinin has become a mess. Everyone says they discovered it, but is that possible in science?'

Xinhua issued news of her award yesterday without any direct quote from the scientist. The state news agency briefly mentioned that Tu, 81, thanked her colleagues for making important contributions to the work.

Yet even Professor Rao Yi, dean of Peking University's school of life sciences and one of Tu's most important supporters, said he had difficulty understanding her position.

'From more than one source, it appears that Tu's unwillingness to credit her own group members and other groups is a non-negligible factor in the controversies. There were complaints that, in her later publications, her citations sometimes skipped others to move her own name forward,' Rao wrote on his blog. 'It is not helpful that she keeps at home original notebooks which belonged to her institute, making them inaccessible to others interested in the original record.

'A major cultural problem is that ... Chinese authorities did not try to find out where credit was due .'

Born in Ningbo, Jiangsu province in 1930, Tu's highest level of education was the undergraduate degree she received from Peking University in 1955. In 1969, she joined Project 523, a national initiative aimed at fighting malaria that had been set up two years earlier.

The top-secret research project, ordered by Mao Zedong, involved more than 500 scientists and researchers in more than 60 institutes across the country.

After combing through ancient medical texts, Tu's group eventually focused its attention on sweet wormwood, known in Chinese as qinghao.

As well as performing extraction at a low temperature using ether, she also removed a harmful acidic portion of the extract that did not contribute to anti-malarial activity, tracked the material to the leaves rather than other parts of the plant, and learnt when to harvest the herb to maximise yields.

Clinical trials were carried out and in 1978 the project declared that a new drug had been invented. Despite her achievements, Tu has never been elected as an academician.