Controversy behind Ms. Tu Youyou, the first Chinese female Noble Prize winner in Physiology or Medicine

In Insights, Uncategorized

9 October, 2015

The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was announced on 5 October. It was rewarded with one half to Tu Youyoufor her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria” and the other half jointly to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Omura.

“Chinese people wish to win Nobel Prize for long time,” said Professor Tu, a 85-year-old scientist, in a telephone interview made by Nobel Media following the announcement. Yes, it is indeed great news for all Chinese in this Golden National Holiday.

“Project 523”, a task force dedicated to find anti-malaria drugs, was initiated in the late 1960s in China, where Professor Tu, together with other Chinese scientists and researchers, was a sub team leader. During the years 1969 to 1972, Professor Tu extracted artemisinin and verified its functionality in curing malaria.

In Chinese media controversy, apart from praise, is also drawn to Professor Tu and her research regarding artemisinin. Though her contribution to the discovery and low-temperature extraction process of artemisinin is widely admitted, there are other scientists who claim that they were the real inventors of the extraction process.

A patent is normally one of the best evidences to resolve such inventor disputes, simply because a patent includes not only a disclosure of an invention, but also the inventor’s name and a set of exclusive territorial rights in a limited time period.

Back to artemisinin and the fact that no patent application was filed by Professor Tu, or any of the other scientists who were involved in “Project 523”, until year 1977. This is when the first scientific paper was published in Chinese to disclose the chemical structure of artemisinin.

How did this happen? Is China not known for its rapid development in intellectual property (IP)? According to the statistic of WIPO, in 2013, China accounted for the largest number of patent applications received by any single IP office — a position that has been held since 2011. Among the top ten IP offices in 2013, China’s IP office saw the fastest annual growth at 26.4% in received filings.

Surprisingly, unlike the western countries, the concept and the value of IP were hardly known in China prior to 1980, which was the year when China joined WIPO. Not to mention that Patent Law of the People’s Republic of China was not enforced until 1 April 1985.

These facts could be the reason why Professor Tu did not file any patent application related to artemisinin in the 1970 and now neither she, nor any other scientist can claim ownership to a patent relating to this great discovery.

Nevertheless, every life saved by artemisinin counts. Professor Tu and all the other scientists who contributed to the research of artemisinin will be appreciated for their great contribution to the world.

Last but not least: Our warmest congratulations to Professor Tu!

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