Where is China's Next Great Medical Innovator?
Ma Xiaohua
/SOURCE : Yicai
Where is China's Next Great Medical Innovator?

(Yicai Global) May 10 -- "Artemisinin is the gift that traditional Chinese medicine brings to the world," said Tu Youyou, a female pharmacologist, on October 5, 2015 after winning the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

One thing Chinese people have to question is whether or not they'll see another Tu Youyou.

"Caught in an era of media hype, what lessons should we really take in?" an official from China's drug supervision authority asked. "Artemisinin was a product of scientific research efforts under a planned economy system, but today, China's innovative medicine making stands far behind other countries under the market-oriented economy."

China pours tens of billions, even hundreds of billions, of yuan into scientific research ever year, but these investments bring about few results. In contrast, it pushes the emergence of unpleasant phenomena, such as essays in favor of boasting and bragging, and fabricated theses. The transformation of scientific research is key to ensuring China's development of new medicine will again see world-class achievements.

How did Tu Youyou Win a Nobel Prize?

A Chinese pharmacologist who graduated from Beijing Medical College, now known as the Peking University Health Science Center, was born in Ningbo, in China's eastern province of Zhejiang on December 30, 1930. She is a tenured chief researcher at China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, director at Artemisinin Research and Development Center and a doctoral supervisor.

It never occurred to the 85-year old that in 2015 she would receive a Nobel Prize, which was awarded mostly based on her successful extraction of a colorless crystal, with molecular formula C15H22O5, known as artemisinin back in 1972.

"The prize comes from collective efforts from all of our team," said Tu in her acceptance speech. "Such an effort should be seen as a joint honor for Chinese scientists, a testament to the attention and recognition that research into the science of traditional Chinese medicine has gained from the international scientific community. This is the pride of China and its scientists."

As early as 1955, Tu was assigned to work for what is now the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, under the leadership of the Ministry of Public Health. In the 1960s, plasmodium, a parasite which causes malaria, showed resistance to often-used quinine based drugs. On May 23, 1967, China began its '523' project, which saw 500 scientific researchers from more than 60 institutions across the country pursue new malaria treatments. Tu, 39 at the time, was asked to take on leadership of the project and bring about fast results.

With her colleagues, Tu looked through ancient traditional Chinese medicine works to find practitioners, and collected more than 600 potential prescriptions for the disease, including sweet wormwood. They extracted more than 380 substances from over 200 Chinese herbal medicines to test on mice, to no avail.

"I later realized that heating the sweet wormwood may be damaging one of the active ingredients, so we decided to extract it using diethyl ether," said Tu. "At the time, all the plants were shut down, so we had to resort to traditional methods."

"First, we bought the sweet wormwood, then put wrapped leaves in the diethyl ether to infuse it. We carried out 191 experiments before we could truly obtain the active ingredient. Trial results showed that this method of extraction resulted in a 100 percent cure rate against malaria in rodents and monkeys. To truly test it, we decided to run human tests -- everybody was willing to do it."

"Although the project represented our team work, Tu was the first to succeed in extracting the ingredient from the wormwood, which was without doubt a key step in the research," an expert in traditional Chinse medicine told Yicai Global. "Despite the fact that technology at a more scientific level would be needed for the ensuing studies, the discovery of artemisinin may have been impossible or postponed if it weren't for her idea."

Since then, combined therapy relying primarily on artemisinin-based drugs has become the most effective way to cure malaria and offer a long-lasting resistance against the disease. Some 240 million people have benefited from the therapy with about 1.5 million patents being protected from death by malaria in sub-Saharan Africa since the year 2000.

Will There Be Another Tu Youyou?

Tu has obtained the most prestigious award throughout the history of China's biomedical community, but will there be another?

"Every year, vast amounts of money are poured into scientific research, but the investments are inclusive and lack priorities, making little different to the development of new medicine. The catastrophic result actually sees innovation in China lagging desperately behind other nations. With so much money unable to produce another Chinese medical wonder, what can be done?

In 2013, state fiscal expenditure totaled CNY618 billion (USD89 billion), up CNY58 billion from a year earlier. Over the same period, funding into the research and development of pharmaceuticals was CNY35 billion. However, advancements in scientific research have paled in comparison to the vastness of funds available, with the biomedical community no exception."

"Despite the huge funds available, many scientists just see money, rather than support for scientific research," the medical expert added. In China, 90 percent of medical companies are clearly not qualified to develop new medicines, and as a result, the cash is spread across a wide range of firms and those who are truly capable of making progress are held back with a smaller portion of funding. "That is why the money hasn't brought about results. China's drug review system needs further improvement. The existing cumbersome approval process tends to block new discoveries for a number of companies."

There is no denying that Tu's success represented a typical scientific or technological breakthrough under the previous system, but is it possible for us to nurture another Tu Youyou amid today's market-oriented system?

"In China, almost all scientists are working for their individual interests, joint efforts have little to no chance," the medical expert said. "We won't see combined efforts unless academicians take the initiative and organize such projects."

In the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, some research personnel are worth as much as CNY10 million (USD1.4 million). "If their teams achieved results and sold them to the market, the researchers would gain 50 percent of the profits, and not have to worry about getting by, they could concentrate on their research," the official from China's drug administrator said. "In China's richest list, few scientific researchers appear. We need to think about human resources in the science and technology sector. How can we motivate workers to innovate?"

To tackle problems in scientific research, the central government introduced and funded the Program on Deepening the Management Reform of Science and Technology Plans in 2014, aiming to regulate management of China's science and technology funds and strategies. In September, the Plan for the Implementation of Deepening the Science and Technology System Reform was released to the public. The document aimed to deepen reforms into a real 'construction' phase to cultivate a new Tu Youyou.

"I've spent my life in research. I hope artemisinin can be put to good use, and hope there will be new incentives for scientists, so China's medicine sector can produce more valuable results and play a better role in the protection of human health," Tu said in a media interview.

Tu has been engaged in the research of traditional Chinese medicine and modern medicine for years, some of her contributions include creating antimalarial medications, artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin. She won a Lasker Award in September 2011 for the development of artemisinin, which has saved millions of lives around the world. She was awarded her Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in October 2015 for the same reasons. Tu is the first mainland Chinese citizen to win a Nobel Prize in science.

This article has been published with Tu's consent.

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Keywords: YouyouTu , Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine