Written by Francesca Danielle O. Suguitan
Illustration by Sophia de Guzman
Published 2022 March 2
Research is a fundamental part of advancing existing technology. Without this, much of what we know and use today would not exist. By joining the efforts and minds of scientists around the world, we grow to understand the world around us. However, there is an underlying gender gap which leaves women underpaid and under-published . The lack of representation for women in the fields of STEM leave them with less job opportunities and recognition .
Despite these challenges, there is one woman that was able to change the tides of the medical community at large.
With the prevalence of endemic diseases in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, there is undeniably a need to find a sustainable and accessible treatment. Pharmaceutical chemistry is the science of designing drugs with the help of biologically active molecules. It aims to “discover and optimize known drug structures” and to expand the catalogue of possible treatments available . Moreover, with the help of pharmaceutical chemistry, ailments that lack effective treatment plans will slowly be accounted for through rigorous testing and research.
Tu Youyou is one of many pharmaceutical chemists that have found innovative ways to treat deadly illnesses, such as malaria. Malaria, a disease caused by plasmodium parasites that live in female Anopheles mosquitoes, can cause severe organ failure and seizures despite the common flu-like symptoms that occur before it . At the time, the parasite had become resistant to chloroquine which was the standard malaria treatment. Thus, in 1967, Project 523 was launched in order to find a cure for chloroquine-resistant malaria wherein Youyou was its project head. Interestingly, her research was crafted around traditional Chinese medical texts from the Shou, Qing and Han dynasties and hands-on observations from her time observing a malaria outbreak in Southern China . By 1971, 24,000 probable compounds found in plants were tested before they arrived at artemisinin—the sole compound that was able to target plasmodium parasites that caused the disease. Artemisinin, found in wormwood, targets the parasite Plasmodium falciparum by blocking its proteins and preventing integral biochemicals from being transmitted into the organism. By doing so, the organism will not be able to sustain itself since the chemical compound jams up and prevents cellular processes from occurring. Because of that, the parasite is unable to duplicate and sustain itself within the host .
Youyou’s discovery is monumental in scientific history because she was the first Chinese woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in Medicine. Moreover, artemisinin has now been credited by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first line of defense for malaria. By creating more treatments, the disease would no longer be seen as a dangerous monolith capable of taking the lives of thousands.
However, by knowing that a treatment for malaria was found, hope can be inspired. With the ingenuity and tenacity of scientists around the world, incurable diseases such as malaria are able to have a variety of treatments meant to overcome it. Currently, the world is struck by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research efforts have led to a drug being formulated to combat the virus. Molnupiravir was originally heralded as a game changer for this pandemic, but repeated clinical trials have shown that its efficacy rate is low. As this is the first step to many in finding the cure to the virus, an effective treatment can eventually be found in the future.
Just as Youyou has worked in collaboration with other scientists to find alternatives drugs for malaria, there are similar women in STEM at the forefront of COVID-19 research. 79% of nurses globally are women, most of which were delegated to care for patients in COVID wards. Moreover, biotechnology companies that are headed by women such as Özlem Türeci have become forerunners in vaccine research. In fact, her company BioNTech was the first to develop an approved RNA-based vaccine against COVID-19. With the under-representation that women are subject to in fields of STEM, it is important to recognize their achievements.
There are many visionaries in the world today, some of which are extraordinary women like Tu Youyou who have paved the way in the field of medicine. Now that the gender divide in STEM is slowly shrinking with more and more women joining, it begs the question: Does the broad horizon given to us by the discoveries of female scientists inspire new ideas in you?
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