The Nobel Prize committee has just awarded this year’s prize to a Chinese researcher from the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) in Beijing. To be precise, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was given jointly to three scientists from three different institutions, William C. Campbell, Satoshi Ōmura and Youyou Tu, for their work on new anti-malaria drugs. A small excerpt from the press-release of the committee tells us more about the possibility of a TCM connection:
Malaria was traditionally treated by chloroquine or quinine, but with declining success. By the late 1960s, efforts to eradicate Malaria had failed and the disease was on the rise. At that time, Youyou Tu in China turned to traditional herbal medicine to tackle the challenge of developing novel Malaria therapies. From a large-scale screen of herbal remedies in Malaria-infected animals, an extract from the plant Artemisia annua emerged as an interesting candidate. However, the results were inconsistent, so Tu revisited the ancient literature and discovered clues that guided her in her quest to successfully extract the active component from Artemisia annua. Tu was the first to show that this component, later called Artemisinin, was highly effective against the Malaria parasite, both in infected animals and in humans (Figure 4). Artemisinin represents a new class of antimalarial agents that rapidly kill the Malaria parasites at an early stage of their development, which explains its unprecedented potency in the treatment of severe Malaria.
One does not have to be a clairvoyant to predict that this event will now be celebrated by TCM fans as a vindication of TCM. But is this justified?
The antifebrile effect of the Chinese herb Artemisia annua (qinghaosu 青蒿素), or sweet wormwood, has been known 1,700 years ago. Tu was the first to extract the biologically active component of the herb, Artemisinin, and discover how it worked. As a result, Artemisinin could be studied and tested for efficacy. Fortunately these tests turned out positive, and subsequently Artemisinin could be produced on a large scale and made available for those who needed it.
Tu’s achievements are huge, and I do unreservedly and enthusiastically applaud her for getting this prestigious award. But is it an award for TCM?
One could even argue that Tu showed how insufficient TCM can be. Artemisia was not used for malaria in TCM, it was used to lower fever. In fact, the whole plant extract shows not enough activity to be effective for malaria. It was not employed to treat a disease but to ease a symptom. TCM physicians had no idea what malaria was, what its cause was, or how it should be treated effectively. It needed a skilled scientist, modern scientific tools and systematic research to make these discoveries.
So, what does this episode really tell us?
Amongst other things,I think, it shows that medicine is open to discoveries regardless where they come from, that experience alone is normally insufficient to make progress, that China has some good scientists who can do amazing work, that plants contain millions of interesting molecules of which some might be therapeutic, that tenacity and skill is usually required to make an important break-through… WHAT IS DOES NOT SHOW, HOWEVER, IS THAT THE MERITS OF TCM HAVE BEEN AKNOWLEDGED BY A NOBEL PRIZE.
I read about genetic engineering being done to ensure high and steady yield of the artemisin, so, big pharma is declared to be bad (not to say about genetic engineering), but …
I’m sure you’re right Prof Ernst.
In the proper sense of the cliché, this is an instance of the exception proving a rule.
Artemisinin came out of TCM, but became useful only because of the application of modern science to an initial clue. The methods of TCM had failed in 2,000 years (insert any popular number for the alleged antiquity of TCM) to make their herbal remedy an effective treatment for malaria.
I would like to introduce you to a Mexican Scientist that has managed to applied Quantum Physics, Einstein’s Relativity Theory and the Bio Chemistry of the body to come out with complete Integral health. it is the therapy of the future that can complement normal medicine.
“In fact, the whole plant extract shows not enough activity to be effective for malaria.”
Isn’t the whole herb Artemesia Annua in fact effective against Malaria if taken in high enough dose, and the extract Artemesinin just makes it easier to get sufficient amount of this anti-Malaria compound?
And I have also read that according to some the whole plant is MORE effective than the synthesized artemisinin, due to the synergistic effects of the various plant constituents, including additional anti-malarial compounds in the plant.
Three cheers for nature and TCM!
you seem to read to much rubbish!
And you seem ‘too’ not dominate the english language ‘to’ well…
More to the point: your so-called scientific expertise has – over the years – consistently shown little more than the inner lining of your dearly held (but outdated) concepts about health (as well as life and reality on the whole).
Time to retire, Eddie…
I am retired, Dirk. but thanks anyway for your pompous and very stupid comment.
I read somewhere, that according to some, the earth is flat.
“Three cheers for nature”? Malaria is perfectly natural.
As for “three cheers for … TCM”, can you explain what principle of TCM is involved here?
Mojo: As a commenter on another blog wrote:
“She [Tu] went looking into Artemisia annua because that’s where TCM told her to look.”
She examined hundreds of sources recommended by TCM before she found sufficient activity in artemisinin. This means that or indications of malaria or its symptoms, most of TCM is totally useless.
I’m not trying to defend TCM, I have no vested interest in that. My point is that this article and commentary is so absurdly one sided and biased, as is a lot of what I’ve read in mainstream press.
Why not just give credit where it is so plainly due — both old and new methods?
That’s how Tu herself characterized it for god’s sake:
“The discovery of artemisinin is a lifesaving gift to human beings from TCM. A combination of TCM knowledge and standard Western medicine procedures led to the success.”
Also, the following comes for a US govt site of all things:
“In 340 BC, the Artemisia annua plants were first described as having antimalarial properties by Ge Hong, an alchemist and medical expert of the East Jin Dynasty.”
Yes, somebody noticed that fresh extract from the plant had some activity but no TCM practitioner noticed that when boiled, the modern prepn, the activity reduced and nobody noticed until Tu that over a hundred preps claimed by TCM were useless. So this does not translate to Tu validating TCM but quite the reverse. If her work is representative it indicates that over 99% of TCM does not work.
This piece of wishful thinking by a Bastyr indoctrinated herbalist disciple of Andrew Weil, is simply wrong.
Here’s a good overview by a real pharmacist.
The author of that article is an MD (David Kiefer MD).
That Dr. Kiefer has the right to put MD after his name does not improve his credibility, Anyone boasting of learning at Bastyr and being buddies with uberquack Andrew Weil is not to be trusted with being in full posession of his senses
Unfortunately this development does seem to have been understood (or misunderstood) by popular commentators eg the press, as being a triumph for CAM rather than for science. Perhaps some of the writers who took up the matter just cannot be bothered to get to grips with the simple fact that some science has been involved here.
Even though it is patently obvious that this discovery was in part made possible by TCM, nobody can concede this even in the slightest. It is a rejection of TCM, because perhaps TCM is too close to nature. And nature cannot be trusted. It must be subdued and controlled. Natural substances are worthless until tweaked and improved upon by modern science.
Nature and TCM did much of the work, but get none of the credit. Too threatening to ideologies, egos, and business models. Can’t patent a whole artemesia plant, or a bulb of garlic, or turmeric root. Plus people would not need doctors and the whole complicated, lucrative, modern healthcare apparatus nearly as much if they got back to simple natural remedies. And how silly might modern science look if primitive, inferior TCM had in fact come up with something important and enduring so long ago? Gotta maintain status quo and keep selling the idea that little plastic pills are always better.
I’m NOT denouncing modern science or modern medicine. Rather the extremist view that refuses to see value in anything else. And I understand that in the case it appears that the discovery offers huge benefit (though I don’t automatically trust the whole story when ideology and politics and money are involved).
This appeared in the Catalan press yesterday: http://www.lavanguardia.com/local/barcelona/20160202/301846066786/barcelona-catalunya-hospital-medicina-tradicional-china.html Catalunya is apparently to welcome ( 😉 ) the first large scale TCM hospital outside Asia….