Thursday, January 19, 2012

Interesting natural products extraction tidbit in NYT

Via a link from Bethany Halford, the fascinating story of artemsinin in China in the New York Times:
The Chinese drug artemisinin has been hailed as one of the greatest advances in fighting malaria, the scourge of the tropics, since the discovery of quinine centuries ago. ...But few people realize that in one of the paradoxes of history, the drug was discovered thanks to Mao Zedong, who was acting to help the North Vietnamese in their jungle war against the Americans. Or that it languished for 30 years thanks to China’s isolation and the indifference of Western donors, health agencies and drug companies. 
Now that story is coming out. But as happens so often in science, versions vary, and multiple contributors are fighting over the laurels. That became particularly clear in September, when one of the Lasker Awards — sometimes called the “American Nobels” — went to a single one of the hundreds of Chinese scientists once engaged in the development of the drug.
It's worth reading the whole thing, but here's an interesting tidbit from the awarded natural products scientist:
In September, the $250,000 Lasker Award for clinical medical research was given to Dr. Tu Youyou, former chief of the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica in Beijing. The Lasker committee named her “the discoverer of artemisinin.” ...In an interview before the ceremony, Dr. Tu, 81, argued that she deserved it because her team had been the first to isolate qinghao’s active ingredient while other teams worked on the wrong plants. 
Also, after rereading a manuscript by Ge Hong, a fourth-century healer, prescribing qinghao steeped in cold water for fever, she realized that boiling, the typical extraction method, was destroying the active ingredient. She switched to ether (emphasis CJ's) and qinghao became the first plant extract 100 percent effective at killing malaria in mice.
One would love to know who actually suggested organic extraction of the plant matter. The boss always gets the credit -- sigh. 


  1. CJ: Any one knows the price of this drug here in the USA and and also in China?

  2. Good question. I think it's being sold by Novartis, so it's gotten into the global pharma pricing range.

    As I recall, artemsinin is sold for $3/pill (retail), but the Clinton Foundation wanted $0.20/pill or so? This is all memory, so I could be wrong.

    I don't think we sell much anti-malarial in the US.

  3. Jeez, ether extraction? Didn't she read the Anderson Process book? She should have at least been on the MTBE train.... : )