An Ancient Cure for Malaria

European Inventor of the Year 2009 in the category "Non-European countries"  

The fight against the worldwide Malaria pandemic requires inexpensive, yet effective drugs. Armed with ancient medical wisdom, Professor Yiqing Zhou and his team at the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology in Beijing created a potent new drug in 1996.

Still from nominee film (JPG)

At a glance

Inventor(s): Yiqing Zhou (mainly responsible), Dianxi Ning, Shufen Wang, Deben Ding, Guofu Li, Chengqi Shan, Guangyu Lie (CN)

Invention: Anti-malaria composition (marketed as Coartem) 

Sector: Healthcare 

Company: Novartis

Malaria is the world's most devastating parasitic infection in humans. It kills one person every 30 seconds, most of them children under 5 years of age. There is no vaccine, and drugs need to be cheap - the disease is most rampant in impoverished parts of the globe.

Searching for an inexpensive treatment, Professor Yiqing Zhou and team at the Institute of Microbiology and Epidemiology in Beijing went back to ancient Chinese medicine. After all, malaria has infected humans for over 50 000 years.

Chinese scientists became interested in an old herbal remedy known as Artemisia annua, or "Sweet Wormwood". It was used in China beginning around 168 BC to treat malaria. The herb was re-discovered in 1967 to treat malaria-stricken soldiers during the Vietnam War.

As the active ingredient, Zhou identified a naturally occurring compound called "artemisinin". Zhou mixed the herb with a proven anti-malarial agent, benflumetol, to create a new drug, completed in 1996.

Cheap to manufacture, Zhou's drug is highly effective. It achieves control over malaria-related fever in as little as 24 to 36 hours. Cure rates range at over 96% after only 3-4 days of treatment.

And the clincher is that there is no problematic drug resistance among malaria strains. Though thousands of years old, the herbal ingredient is "new" to current malaria parasites.  

Distributed by pharmaceutical company Novartis as "Coartem" since 2001, Zhou's drug has been used in 160 million treatments so far, saving an estimated 450 000 lives. Novartis has been able to constantly lower the price for the drug in cooperation with the WHO and other global foundations.

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