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Artemisia: From Plant to Nobel Prize In Medicine

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Ever since politicians began winning Nobel Prizes, I’ve become lukewarm about the honor of winning such an award. A Chinese researcher, Tu Youyou, just received her Nobel prize in Medicine for a drug she developed to treat malaria, out of the herb, Artemisia, or sweet wormwood.

I worked as a US Navy Corpsman, attached to the 7th Marine Division in Vietnam in 1970-71. I recall swallowing Quinine tablets, as was protocol, and requesting that all of those Marines under my watch take them also. Yes, “Quinine” as in “Gin and Tonic Water!” The pungent taste apparently kept us from getting malaria.

It didn’t work for me, as I ended up with the mosquito borne illness and was very ill for weeks. For the rest of my tour, I stopped taking my quinine tablets and never relapsed-go figure! By the way, Quinine comes from the Peruvian cinchona tree, and has a list of antimicrobial properties, including antifungal properties. Ancient Peruvians and Chinese have used the bark of this tree for centuries to treat, but not prevent, malaria.

The same can be said for Artemisia, from which was synthesized this new Nobel Prize winning drug, called Artemisinin, as developed by Dr. Youyou. Does this discovery deserve a Nobel Prize? Broccoli and garlic have the very same properties! Of course, this all begs the question as to why have we moved from God-given safe herbal remedies to pharmaceutical drugs. I believe it is because money and Nobel Prizes have a powerful impact on the direction of pharmaceutical research.

Today it is a common practice (since plants cannot be patented) to synthesize them in a laboratory. Unfortunately, this can make them potentially dangerous, expensive and impossible to get without “asking your doctor if Artemisinin is right for you!” Of course, you will hear, its right for you, because most doctors have no idea of how available, safe and inexpensive the herb Artemisia even is…


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