The Lasker Awards, announced on Monday by the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation , carry a $250,000 prize per category and are widely considered the nation’s most prestigious medical awards.
81-year-old Chinese scientist Dr. Tu Youyou has won the 2011 Lasker DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for her discovery of artemisinin – a widely used antimalarial drug which has prevented millions of deaths worldwide.
The scientist is Dr. Tu Youyou, and the antimalarial drug is artemisinin, which was discovered decades ago.
Dr. Tu and her colleagues began their work in the 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese government began a project to find a new malaria drug that could replace the standard treatment, chloroquine, which was losing effectiveness as malaria parasites developed resistance.
They scoured the literature on ancient Chinese remedies and collected 380 extracts from 200 herbs that offered promise. One of the plants they studied was sweet wormwood, or Artemisia annua, which was used by Chinese herbalists centuries ago to treat fever .
Artemisia annua (left), or sweet wormwood, contains the powerful antimalarial drug artermisinin, orginally known as Qinghaosu (青蒿素). The three-dimensional diagram of artemisinin (middle) shows the endoperoxide bond, which is crucial for the compound's antimalarial effects, between the numbered oxygens. The ball model of artermisinin (right) shows that bond on the left-hand side (two red oxygens linked to each other) (Source: Lasker Foundation).
Dr. Tu and her team discovered a way to extract an active substance from the plant, removed a toxic portion of it, and demonstrated that it wiped out the malaria-causing parasite in animals. The resulting drug, artemisinin, was later shown to cure malaria in humans.
Today, artemisinin and its derivatives are typically coupled with other treatments to combat malaria, and the World Health Organization recommends this combination therapy as the “first-line treatment” against the disease.
“It is clear that , particularly in the developing world, and continues to yield long-term medical benefits in the ongoing fight against this deadly disease,” the foundation said.
This year’s Lasker Public Service Award went to the Clinical Center of the National Institutes of Health “for creating a research hospital where doctors develop innovative therapies and explore new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent a wide variety of diseases.”
That award is being renamed this year in honor of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, who received it in 2009. The prizes are to be given at a ceremony in New York on Sept. 23.