The British researcher who proved that artemisinin, an ancient Chinese herbal medicine, was the most effective treatment for combatting malaria has been awarded one of seven Gairdner prizes — Canada’s equivalent of the Nobels or the Laskers. This year’s awards, which come with a $100,000 cash prize for each recipient, also recognized scientists who made discoveries with nuclear receptors, ion channels and oxygen responses.
In 1979, Nicholas White was studying malaria in eastern Thailand when he came across a tattered five-page manuscript from the Chinese Medical Journal — the first known English paper describing the traditional herb, qinghao (also known by its scientific name, Artemisia annua). The paper showed that the compound, which had been used to treat headaches for more than 1,000 years, was also highly effective against the malaria parasite.
Over the next few decades, White, director of the Wellcome Trust’s Southeast Asia Unit in Bangkok, Thailand, fought political and scientific opposition to demonstrate that artemisinin was a more potent antimalarial than existing drugs such as mefloquine.
Other winners include Oxford’s Peter Ratcliffe, Johns Hopkins’ Gregg Semenza and Dana-Farber’s William Kaelin for their work on cellular responses to fluxes in oxygen levels that have led to therapies for heart disease and cancer prevention, and William Catterall from the University of Washington in Seattle for his discovery of the sodium and calcium channels that underlie electrical signaling in the brain. A full list can be found on the Gairdner Foundation’s website.
Image of Nick White via the Wellcome Trust