The Nobel Prize committee has gladdened the hearts of the Chinese twice over. Youyou Tu shares the prize for physiology or medicine for developing a drug against the malarial parasite. Finally, China’s long-unrequited desire for a life sciences Nobel stands fulfilled. Previous Chinese laureates have worked in physics, literature and peace. Besides, Youyou is the first Chinese woman laureate, and that is not the only glass ceiling she has brushed aside — though her work has helped to save millions of lives, her name was not exactly celebrated in the life sciences.
But it will be, not least because of the unusual subject matter of the research work that won her the prize. The awards for the last five years have gone to work on the brain’s GPS system, the function of intracellular organelles known as vesicles, cell reprogramming, the triggering of immunity and in vitro fertilisation. These laureates answered questions at the cutting edge of contemporary medicine. Youyou’s work, on the contrary, drew on herbal pharmacology in 4th century China. The team with which she worked was charged by the government to trawl repositories of traditional medicine for herbs that could yield antimalarial drugs. Sweet wormwood, known to have been in use in China for at least two millennia, yielded artemisinin, which is now in widespread use as a replacement for first generation antimalarials.
This should serve as a spur to India, which has a huge pharmacopoeia developed by schools of traditional medicine over centuries, and which should be rigorously examined for pharmacological activity before they are dismissed as placebos or plain delusion. Of course, the times are such that it may embolden pseudoscientific nationalists to carry on some more about the virtues of culturally sanctified substances and practices. Then, the loss to humanity would be immense.