China's Nobel lesson for India: Remember ancient past, but embrace modern science

We should neither disregard our own ancient texts, nor hail untested traditional remedies as a divine panacea for all our medical ills.

 |  Beijing Diary  |  4-minute read |   07-10-2015
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Monday's surprise announcement of the Nobel Prize for medicine being awarded to veteran - but little-known - Chinese scientist Tu Youyou has sparked much debate, both in the 84-year-old scientist's homeland and elsewhere. The award to Beijing-based Tu has been much celebrated in China, hailed by no less than Premier Li Keqiang as an indicator of the country's scientific progress.

Much of the debate in China has focused on the fact that Tu, unlike many of her own compatriots, neither spent time in top overseas research universities nor was recognised by her own country's elite Chinese Academy of Sciences - a testament to her individual excellence and perseverance.Her award has also reignited a long-running debate on the virtues of traditional medicine, which has a long history in China and India, and modern science.

tuyouyou-malaria-chi_100715093638.jpg The 2015 Chinese Nobel Laureates in Medicine.

Tu herself attributes some of her research success in developing path-breaking anti-Malarial drugs to herbs mentioned in more than 1,500-year-old Chinese texts. The Nobel citation praised her discovery of Artemisinin for "significantly reduced the mortality rates for patients suffering from Malaria". (Tu shared the prize with two scientists from Ireland and Japan, William Campbell and Satoshi Omura, who had come up with therapies for roundworm parasite infections.)

Tu was relatively unknown outside of her country and scientific circles until her award of the Lasker Foundation prize in 2011. In a speech at the award ceremony, the modest scientist, who rarely gives interviews to the press, recalled experiences from her childhood in the 1930s and 1940s when she "witnessed occasions when patients were rescued by folk Chinese medicine recipes".

tuyouyou-malaria-chi_100715094105.jpg Tu Youyou at work in 1950s.

She began researching herbal medicines in 1955. Only a decade later, her country was thrown into chaos in the decade-long Cultural Revolution (1966-76), when scientists and scholars were persecuted by Mao Zedong's Red Guards as "Rightists" and intellectuals were humiliated publicly in "struggle sessions". Yet Mao saw the value of researching anti-Malarial drugs, at a time when his allies in North Vietnam were struggling with illness. The Mao-blessed Project 523 allowed her to carry on her work in turbulent times.

That Tu attributes some of her discoveries to herbs cited in ancient texts will be seen by advocates of the superiority of traditional medicine over Western science as a cause for celebration. Yet that will be missing the wider lesson from Tu's success. Tu was a trained scientist in Western pharmaceutical science and research methods. It took her more than 20 years, after painstaking research and trials, to publish her research on Artemisinin in 1977.

As Tu herself stresses, it was a fusing of traditional knowledge with rigorous modern science that made her discoveries successful - and more importantly, of value to the rest of the world. The debate on traditional science - especially in India - is often polarized between advocates of the superiority of Ayurveda and traditional science, and those that dismiss untested herbal remedies as bunkum. Tu's work is by no means a blanket endorsement of herbal remedies: without the years of research, which significantly built on and even revised the prescriptions of older texts, her work would not have been successful.

Indeed, in China as in India, a vast - and unregulated - industry built on ancient remedies has wide following. And, in both countries, this industry isn't without its fair share of quackery (such as one renowned case in China where self-described "leading traditional Chinese medicine expert" Zhang Wuben advocated consuming several kilograms of Mung beans daily to cure diabetes and cancer; it later emerged that Zhang had no licence in traditional medicine and may have even profited from inflating, through his prescriptions, the price of Mung beans).

At the same time, her work also shows the value of not dismissing out of hand ancient knowledge, as some in India are often wont to do. In China, for instance, research universities and the government provide substantial support to scholars studying traditional Chinese medicine, and Beijing has sprawling, state-of-the-art hospitals that also offer traditional Chinese medicine treatments and remedies.

As Tu herself says, it was only because she was "equipped with a sound knowledge in both traditional Chinese medicine and modern pharmaceutical sciences" that her team "inherited and developed the essence of traditional Chinese medicine using modern science and technology". The message is clear: we should neither disregard our own ancient texts which could yield - if verified, studied and researched properly - vital medicinal knowledge, nor hail untested ancient remedies as a divine panacea for all our ills.

Writer

Ananth Krishnan Ananth Krishnan @ananthkrishnan

The writer is China correspondent for India Today.

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