Nobel win prompts debate over roles of traditional Chinese medicine, science
Tu Youyou has
become the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize, for her work in helping to
create an anti-malaria medicine. The 84-year-old's route to the honour has been
anything but traditional.
- China's Tu Youyou collects her country's first Nobel Prize for medicine next
week for extracting an anti-malarial drug from a herb mentioned in a
traditional text, but her award has prompted debate over the role of science in
derived artemisinin from sweet wormwood, which she found cited in a 4th century
traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) document as a fever treatment, developing a
crucial weapon in the global fight against the mosquito-borne disease as
resistance to other treatments spread.
medicine is a source of cultural pride in some Chinese quarters, with Beijing
planning to expand its provision, and even Premier Li Keqiang seized on the
Nobel award, hailing Tu's discovery as "a great contribution of TCM to the
cause of human health".
Nobel committee member Hans Forssberg was adamant: "It's very important
that we are not giving a prize to the traditional medicine," he said,
stressing that the award was only for scientific work that had been inspired by
practitioners say her recognition could encourage similar research that may
sideline the underpinnings of their theories.
is based on a set of beliefs about human biology, including the existence of a
life force, "qi", and that illness is the result of
"imbalances" between the five elements -- fire, water, earth, metal
and wood -- in the system.
is no orthodox evidence for such concepts, and the respected scientific
magazine Nature has described TCM as "largely just pseudoscience, with no
rational mechanism of action for most of its therapies", calling them an
"arcane array of potions and herbal mixtures".
contrast, Tu chemically extracted the active ingredient of a single plant in
fear that the recent Nobel Prize, which celebrates westernized Chinese
medicine, will end up doing more harm than good for authentic traditional
medical practice," said Lan Jirui, who has a booming TCM private practice
her research as a victory for TCM was "reckless", said the state-run
China Daily, arguing that would encourage Westernized reforms that ignore
traditional theories about the body as a holistic system.
should not use Western science to 'cure' Chinese medicine," Lan said,
calling the study of TCM from a rationalist perspective "essentially
human body is very complicated -- you cannot see it only as a machine," he
added. "The scariest thing is to lack confidence in your own traditions,
to allow others to 'update' you, and then destroy what you had."