WTF Fun Fact 13377 – Tu Youyou and the Nobel Prize

Tu Youyou is a Chinese scientist and pharmaceutical chemist whose groundbreaking work in the discovery of artemisinin revolutionized malaria treatment. Her contributions have had a significant impact on global health, saving countless lives. Interestingly, she sought (and found) the award-winning compound in the corpus of Ancient Chinese Medicine.

According to the Nobel Prize website (cited below): “She is the first mainland Chinese scientist to have received a Nobel Prize in a scientific category, and she did so without a doctorate, a medical degree, or training abroad.”

The training of Tu Youyou

Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China, Tu’s interest in medicine may have started after she had to miss two years of school after a bout of tuberculosis.

Tu’s interests eventually landed her at Beijing Medical College. There, she studied pharmacology – a modern science – but with a traditional backbone. At college, she learned how to classify medicinal plants and extract their active ingredients in order to learn more about their chemical structure. She would do this with many of the thousands of plants in the ancient Chinese medical handbooks.

Tu Youyou went to work at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in 1955, after graduation.

She was first asked by the Chinese government to help find a treatment for malaria during the Vietnam War. Vietnamese soldiers were dying in droves because the disease had become resistant to the standard treatment – chloroquine. But this posed a global health threat. She joined the battle against the disease after Chairman Mao Zedong launched a project called Project 523 in 1967.

Discovering a new malaria treatment

In 1969, Tu became the head of Project 523 and traveled to Hainan Island in southern China. She had to leave her two young children behind for three years to study the disease in its deadly habitat.

After she returned, the scientific work began.

In Beijing, Tu and her team were facing a difficult situation. Over 240,000 compounds had already been tested for their potential use in anti-malarial drugs, but none worked. That’s when they returned to the ancient Chinese medical text.

A reference to sweet wormwood (known as Artemisia annua) would turn out to be the key. She had identified it for its ability to help with “intermittent fevers” – a key symptom of malaria. It had been used in China around 400 AD.

Turning nature into medicine

Through meticulous experimentation, Tu Youyou and her team successfully isolated a compound from Artemisia annua that demonstrated potent anti-malarial properties. She named this compound artemisinin. It was very successful in killing malaria in laboratory tests.

After lab tests came clinical trials, which were also successful. The great thing about artemisinin was that it helped kill malaria while minimizing the development of resistance to the medication. Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which combine artemisinin derivatives with other anti-malarial drugs, have since become the gold standard in malaria treatment worldwide.

Tu Youyou’s groundbreaking discoveries earned her numerous accolades and recognition. In 2015, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, becoming the first Chinese scientist to receive this prestigious honor. Her contributions have had a profound impact on global health, particularly in regions heavily burdened by malaria.

Tu Youyou’s impact on the future

Artemisinin and its derivatives have transformed malaria treatment and played a crucial role in reducing the mortality rate of this deadly disease. Their widespread use has significantly contributed to the decline in malaria-related deaths worldwide. Tu Youyou’s work continues to inspire scientists, researchers, and healthcare professionals in the ongoing fight against malaria.

Despite the remarkable success of artemisinin-based therapies, challenges remain in the battle against malaria. The emergence of drug resistance, particularly in Southeast Asia, underscores the need for ongoing research and innovative approaches to combat this persistent global health issue. Scientists continue to study artemisinin and explore novel drug combinations to stay ahead of the evolving malaria parasite.

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Source: Tu Youyou – The Nobel Prize website

WTF Fun Fact 13306 – Open Air Schools

Open-air schools were first established in the early 20th century as a response to the spread of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses. By providing students with access to fresh air and natural light, these institutions aimed to improve their health and well-being and protect them from the harmful effects of crowded, poorly-ventilated indoor spaces.

Fresh air for wellbeing

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, public health professionals emphasized the importance of fresh air, natural light, and outdoor spaces for promoting health and well-being. This was partly due to the work of Florence Nightingale.

Open-air schools were institutions designed to provide children with an alternative to the cramped, stuffy, and often unsanitary classrooms of the time. They first appeared in Europe in the early 20th century and gained popularity as a way to combat the spread of tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses.

Many of these schools were located in urban areas, where overcrowding, pollution, and poverty made indoor learning environments potentially dangerous.

One of the pioneers of open-air schools was a German doctor named Bernhard Bendix. He founded the Waldschule (Forest School) in Charlottenburg, Germany, in 1904. The school was located in a forested area outside of Berlin. It featured outdoor classrooms, covered porches, and other open-air spaces where students could learn and play.

The Waldschule quickly became a model for other open-air schools in Germany and beyond. By 1914, there were over 40 open-air schools in Germany alone. Soon, the movement spread to other parts of Europe and North America.

US open air schools

In the United States, open-air schools first appeared in the early 20th century. This was a response to the spread of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. One of the earliest examples was the Outdoor School for Crippled Children in Providence, Rhode Island, which opened in 1907.

The school was located on a hilltop overlooking the city. It featured open-air classrooms, outdoor play areas, and a greenhouse where students could grow their own vegetables. Despite some initial skepticism, the Outdoor School was successful in improving the health and wellbeing of its students. As a result, it became a model for other open-air schools in the United States.

During the 1920s and 1930s, the popularity of these schools began to decline. That’s because new treatments for tuberculosis and other respiratory illnesses became available. However, the idea of using fresh air and outdoor spaces as a way to promote health and wellbeing continued.

Today, some schools around the world still incorporate outdoor learning environments into their curriculum. Some argue that it can help students to develop a deeper connection to the natural world, improve their physical and mental health, and enhance their academic performance.

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Source: “When Tuberculosis Struck the World, Schools Went Outside” — Smithsonian Magazine

WTF Fun Fact 13270 – Maggot Therapy

Maggot therapy involves using disinfected fly larvae (maggots) to help remove damaged tissue from wounds. And while it may sound gross, it’s making a comeback in mainstream medicine.

What is maggot therapy?

Maggot therapy, also known as maggot debridement therapy (MDT), is a medical treatment that uses live maggots to clean and heal wounds in humans. Granted, it sounds like an unpleasant approach to wound care. But it actually has a long and fascinating history dating back centuries. For example, maggots were used by the Mayans and other Native Americans.

In the early 19th century, a French surgeon named Jules-Francois Germain found that maggots could clean wounds more effectively than traditional methods like cauterization. Their use could also help avoid amputation.

In and out of style

Throughout the 19th century, doctors and surgeons used the technique to treat a variety of conditions like ulcers, abscesses, and gangrene. But despite its effectiveness, maggot therapy fell out of favor in the mid-20th century. This is partly due to the development of antibiotics. Those are far easier to convince someone to take!

However, in the 1980s, antibiotic resistance became a huge problem thanks to the overuse of antibiotics. This helped revive the interest in using maggots in medicine. Scientists even developed new techniques for sterilizing and breeding maggots so they would pose less risk. This also helps patients see them as lab-created entities rather than something you’d find in a dumpster.

Today, maggot therapy is recognized as a safe and effective treatment for a variety of wounds. It’s used for treating diabetic foot ulcers, venous stasis ulcers, and pressure ulcers.

Maggots today

While still relatively rare, doctors do use maggots in hospitals today. They’re carefully applied to wounds in a special dressing so they can feed on the dead tissue and secrete enzymes to kill bacteria and promote healing. When the maggots are removed after several days, a wound is cleaned and dressed and ready to let the body take over the healing.

Maggots might sound gross, but they’re a cost-effective treatment option. They are also particularly helpful for patients who have not responded well to other forms of wound care. As a result, this therapy is gaining increasing recognition as a valuable tool in the treatment of chronic wounds.

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Source: “Entomological Medicine: How One Scientist is Working to Bring Maggot Therapy Into Wider Use” — Entomology Today

WTF Fun Fact 13047 – Robert Liston’s Infamous Surgery

Robert Liston was a respected 19th-century surgeon. In fact, surgical instruments have been named in his honor. And while he might have taken great pride in amputating limbs as fast as possible, the goal was to save the patient from prolonged pain. There were no anesthetics back in that day. The faster the surgery was over, the better. But one amputation went horribly awry, killing 3 people.

The surgery with a 300% fatality rate

While there’s a chance it may be an apocryphal story, Liston’s most infamous amputation involved 3 fatalities. During a leg amputation, he cut so fast that he severed the fingers of his surgical assistant. And while he was switching instruments, he slashed the white coat of a doctor observing nearby.

Many patients died during amputations in the 19th century, so one fatality could be expected. However, the assistant ended up dying of a blood infection. To top it off, the man whose coat he had slashed wasn’t physically injured but ended up dying of shock because he thought he had been stabbed.

That makes this amputation the only one with a 300% fatality rate.

Robert Liston, showman

Liston was a show-off, but he was also a great surgeon. He also aided in the introduction of ether as an anesthetic.

During one procedure that lasted only 25 seconds, he gave the patient ether, severed the limb, and when the patient came to he asked when the surgery would take place. This greatly impressed the crowd. (In those days, surgeries took place in operating theaters with many other physicians watching.)

Robert Liston died in a sailing accident not long after that and didn’t get to see the evolution of anesthetics. However, he was remembered not only for being “the fastest knife of the West End” but for his willingness to take on the cases that other doctors would not.  WTF fun facts

Source: “‘Time Me, Gentlemen’: The Fastest Surgeon of the 19th Century” — The Atlantic

WTF Fun Fact 12749 – The Invention of Kidney Dialysis

The development of kidney dialysis started centuries ago. Even doctors in the ancient world understood the kidneys played an important role in filtering bodily fluids. Galen’s treatise On the Natural Faculties mentioned doctors prior to his time investigating the organ and its function.

But figuring out how to replicate the filtering function of the kidneys didn’t happen until the 1800s when a Scottish chemist named Thomas Graham realized he could create a membrane to act as a filter to “clean” some bodily fluids (though he wasn’t exactly spot on about what he was filtering out).

Despite sometimes being referred to as the “Father of Dialysis,” his discoveries weren’t kidney-related. In fact, for decades, scientists were more concerned with trying to filter blood for trauma patients during surgery. That’s because they didn’t have blood banks, so when someone lost blood, they needed to preserve it for the patient but also needed a way of cleaning it up first.

Blood dialysis was performed on animals in the early 20th century, and the use of blood thinners was already in use to keep it from clotting (which is necessary if you want to put it back in the body!).

In 1924, a German doctor named Georg Haas realized the possibilities of dialysis for kidney patients. Since our kidneys are responsible for filtering out impurities, those in kidney failure need some extra help.

Haas seems to have had around six patients that used his dialysis machine, but it wasn’t quite ready for prime time yet. All of those patients died of kidney failure (possibly as a result of the dialysis not filtering adequately).

The “drum kidney” was introduced in 1945 by a Dutch doctor Willem Kolff, and because materials science was more advanced, the plastics and other materials he had at his disposal made the machine more effective for cleaning bodily fluids (and didn’t leach its own materials into patients either).

Before we get to today’s modern-day dialysis machines, there were many more people involved in the invention of dialysis – including chemists and physicians that improved upon past technology:

– Swedish chemist Nils Alwall designed a machine to both clean and drain blood
– American scientist Belding Scribner had the dialysis process uninterrupted so the body would not be severely lacking in blood during the dialysis treatment
– Michael Brescia and James Cimino found a way to make Scribner’s invention work with needles so patients didn’t need to maintain an open wound that might be prone to infection

And these are just the preliminary steps we took on our way to modern kidney dialysis!

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Source: “History of the kidney disease treatment” — St. George’s Kidney Patients Association