Prize honors devotion to medical science

Updated: 2011-09-28 08:05

By Liu Shinan (China Daily)

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When the US-based Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced it was honoring Chinese pharmacologist Tu Youyou last weekend, some Chinese netizens said it reflected poorly on China's top academic institutions.

This was because the medical scientist was not a member of either the Chinese Academy of Sciences or the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Tu won this year's Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her team's discovery of artemisinin's use in the treatment of malaria a scientific advance that has saved millions of lives around the world.

The netizens argued that Tu's absence from the academies shows the drawbacks in the organizations' mechanisms for selecting members. Entrance into the two prestigious organizations is regarded as the highest honor for any scientist or technologist in China.

Such a contention is fairly plausible, but I think Tu's final rise to fame at the age of 81 deserves more attention.

Her honor came more than 40 years after she began studying the anti-malarial function of Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood. Before the American foundation made the announcement, few in China knew who Tu Youyou was.

This is thought-provoking for China's scientists and technologists. Do they have the spirit to devote their entire life to scientific advancement in quiet, tenacious research? Can they stand remaining anonymous for 40 years?

We have to admit that today's Chinese scientific circles are also influenced by seeking quick profit and immediate success without the patience to perform solid work.

After three decades of pursuing financial improvement and seeing so many of their neighbors get rich overnight through speculating in stocks or real estate, or making goods in hot demand, or making and selling counterfeit products many people in China have developed an impatience for success. Resorting to all possible means to become wealthy seems to have become a tenet for many people.

Unfortunately, some scientists and technologists, who used to be role models for students, are also infected by the trend. Unethical behavior, such as faking academic credentials, resorting to malpractice in applying for membership into science academies and even embezzling research funds, are not uncommon in science and technology circles.

Some of them even stooped to speaking for counterfeit healthcare products that prove to be ineffective or even harmful to people's health.

Professor Tu has set a good example for them. Her tenacious pursuit of a treatment for malaria over dozens of years in obscurity has put those short-sighted people to shame.

But the lesson is greater than that. Tu's work was innovative. When the government launched a research program to find an alternative remedy for malaria in 1967, the deadly scourge had developed some resistance to chloroquine, the only cure at the time. Tu and her team undertook the task.

She targeted herbs used in Chinese medicine. She and her aides extracted 380 essences from more than 200 herbs and tested them individually. They finally found that the extract from Artemisia annua, known as qinghao, could wipe out the malarial-causing agent in blood. They succeeded in obtaining a purified version in 1972, and the findings were reported at an international conference hosted by the World Health Organization in 1981.

The timely discovery of a new medicine to replace an obsolete drug to treat a high-incidence disease is Tu's contribution to human health. It was exactly because of this innovation that the Lasker foundation awarded her with the honor.

And what some of our scientists and technologists lack is exactly Professor Tu's spirit of pioneering pursuit and persistent endeavor.

The author is assistant editor-in-chief of China Daily. E-mail:

(China Daily 09/28/2011 page8)