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 12696 – Uranus’ Original Name

Uranus – everyone’s favorite planet. Or maybe when you hear the name, you instantly roll your eyes knowing that someone’s about to make a terrible joke.

Either way, many of us know that Uranus is the ancient Greek version of the god of the sky and heavens (and it’s technically pronounced ou-ra-nos, though some people even insist it’s urine-us rather than u-anus). But whatever. The point here is that the planet was originally named George.

And not just George, the Georgium Sidus (or Georgian moon/moon of George).

Until English astronomer William Herschel discovered the bright light was a planet in 1781, everyone assumed it was just another star, or perhaps a comet. The object had been seen before and was recorded in John Flamsteed’s catalog of stars (as “34 Tauri, the 34th star of Taurus the Bull”).

The Herschels were an incredible family of amateur astronomers. William’s sister, Caroline, may have been even more talented, and people knew it! In fact, Maskelyne wrote about the important role played by amateur astronomers right after Caroline discovered her first comet. (Caroline even got a job updating Flamsteed’s catalog of stars, the Historia Coelestis Britannica.)

Another fun fact? In the 1800s (and long before and shortly after), science could hardly be done without a rich person’s funding. Herschel wasn’t even considered to be a professional astronomer at the time – he also fell into the ranks of an “amateur.” In fact, the official Royal Astronomer, Nevil Maskelyne, still had to confirm it was a planet before it could be declared one. Even then, it was until astronomer Johann Elert Bode double confirmed it that the object was accepted by a planet by the scientific community (which is how you make it really official, not just “royal official”).

According to NASA, its mistaken identity as a star is understandable. The planet is extremely far from the sun and moves incredibly slowly (so much that half of it is plunged into ice-covered darkness for 21 years at a time). So you’d have to watch the object for decades to notice it even acts like a planet – that’s the kind of dedication required! It’s pretty much invisible to us now because of the light pollution the Earth emits.

But back to the George – Uranus thing.

William Herschel really wanted royal patronage (aka money) to fund his endeavors. So in order to gain favor with King George III, he used his fame as the person who discovered the first new planet since antiquity to advocate for the name George.

But George didn’t exactly fit with the naming scheme astronomers had going on at the time, which was all mythology-based. So in the end, it was Bode who got his way, naming the planet Uranus.

Of course, Herschel got the credit and the benefits that followed. And now we all get to tell Uranus jokes until the end of time (but it’s Bode we have to thank for that). – WTF fun facts

Source: “Venus Meets a Planet Named George” — NASA