Ancient Herb Helps Modern Malady

By Beatrice Endler

CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)

On Oct. 5 2015, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to three scientists. William C. Campbell, from Ireland, and Satoshi Omura, from Japan, split half of the $953,500 prize. Both scientists contributed to the discovery of Avermectin, which when modified, creates Ivermectin, a drug that has decreased the prevalence of diseases such as River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis. The other half of the award went to Tu Youyou, from China, for discovering the antimalarial drug Artemisinin.

Both of these drugs have natural origins, from soil or from herbs, and both work to combat parasitic diseases. A parasite is an organism that relies on another organism for energy and means of reproduction, and the parasite and its host exist symbiotically, meaning the parasite benefits more than the host.

The simplified process of the discovery and creation of drug Artemisinin: from ancient text, to extraction from herb Artemisia annua, to anti-malarial drug (Photo: The Official Website of the Nobel Prize)

In the 1970s, the two scientists, Campbell and Omura, began separate work on an anti-parasitic drug. Omura discovered Avermectin: a purified bioactive agent originally found within bacteria in the soil.They both created Ivermectin, a chemically modified version of Avermectin, which demonstrated its keen ability to kill parasitic larvae in both (domestic and farm) animals and humans. This is especially true with the parasitic worms that lead to diseases such as River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis.

According to the Official Website of the Nobel Prize, “parasitic worms… are estimated to afflict one third of the world’s population,” particularly in “sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Central and South America.” River Blindness occurs because of “chronic inflammation in the cornea,” and Lymphatic Filariasis leads to chronic swelling and disabling symptoms such as Elephantiasis.

Aver combats many parasitic diseases, is available throughout the world, has few side effects, and has the potential to completely eradicate River Blindness and Lymphatic Filariasis.

Artemisinin was the other prize winning discovery, but it can be contrasted with Avermectin, in that the development of Artemisinin is rooted in ancient, Chinese medicine and herbal treatments. Artemisinin is extremely effective in fighting malaria, which is a single-celled, parasitic disease that infects red blood cells. Almost half of the world’s population is at risk for this potentially deadly disease, as 200 million are infected yearly, and more than 450,000 people die from malaria each year.

The conventional antimalarial treatments included the chemicals quinine and chloroquine, but as malaria became resistant to these drugs, another treatment was needed. Youyou’s inspiration for her prize-winning antimalarial treatment, originated with a Chinese text from 284 AD, called, A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies.

In the 1960s, as Youyou analyzed this book full of traditional Chinese medicine, she found that one herb, sweet wormwood, was said to have been used to reduce malarial symptoms. Using this ancient text as guidance, Youyou began to investigate the sweet wormwood, also known as Artemisia annua. Then, using modern laboratory techniques, she was able to extract the active component of the herb, thus producing Artemisinin.

After isolating the active component of the herb, Youyou had to prove that Artemisinin was effective and safe by running clinical trials. But since patients were unwilling to partake in such an experiment, she had to test it out on herself.

Artemisinin is so effective in treating infected animals and humans because it works to destroy malaria parasites during the early stages of growth. Using Artemisinin in conjunction with other antimalarial drugs has become the typical treatment throughout the world. Since its development, this Artemisinin has saved the lives of around 100,000 Africans yearly.

With this prestigious award given to a project with such unconventional, medicinal beginnings, perhaps there is the possibility that some of the hesitancy surrounding alternative and integrative (combination of traditional and alternative treatment) drug therapies can be reduced.

It would be difficult to convince the public and health-care providers of the efficacy of supplemental, unorthodox treatments unless there is evidence-based medicine to prove their success. Artemisinin, an example of integrative medicine, has given credence to old treatments, and the possibility that they have modern value.


Image Credit: Unsplash

About Grace Masback

Grace Masback, 17, aspires to give voice to the voiceless and holds the modest ambition of becoming the voice of Gen Z. Frustrated by the dearth of impactful platforms for teen journalists, she founded WANT, a news, sports, and entertainment website that aggregates the best in high school journalism from school newspapers and teen bloggers around the world (

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