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Sunil Kumar Verma, a senior Indian scientist has triggered the debate over malaria cure artemisinin. According to him, discovery of artemisinin has won Chinese scientists the Nobel prize for the same in medicine this year, but he claimed that artemisinin has roots in India. Verma says that India had known this treatment of malaria more than a century ago.

Scientist Youyou Tu was awarded Nobel Prize in medicine this year for the discovery of artemisinin, a cure for malaria. Artemisinin which is used in malaria therapy is an active compound extracted from a medicinal plant called artemisia annua, a well-known herb in traditional Chinese medicine.

To prove his claim, Verma presented a snapshot of the book titled ‘Indian Medicinal Plants’ published in 1918 by Lieutenant Colonel K.R. Kirtikar and Major B.D. Basu, In the book it is mentioned that artemisinin was used to cure ‘intermittent and remittent fever’. It is to be noticed that it was not discovered by then and in India it was known as ‘intermittent and remittent fever’ till 1880.

“Until that time, malaria was known in India with its symptoms i e intermittent and remittent fever for which the use of artemisinin was described in above verses,” said Verma, a former Commonwealth scholar and a PhD from Oxford University, in his Facebook post dated October 7.

Verma, principal scientist at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) said, if artemisinin has roots in India then it is known as Chinese traditional medicine and not Indian traditional medicine?: However, he further added if the medicine was used by Indian and China both then credit should be given to both the countries and not China alone.

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  • Siva

    You may want to research the topic carefully – the 2015 Nobel for Medicine was awarded for the discovery of Artemisinin, from the leaves of the Sweet Wormwood (Artemisia Annua), which has been documented in Chinese traditional medicine for over 2000 years. The book referenced above talks about Artemisin (an old name for the alkaloid Santonin), from the seeds of the European herb Sea Wormwood (Artemisia Maritima), and the reference is only 97 years old. Artemisin (Santonin) and Artemisinin are different alkaloids – the latter has a completely different structure with an important peroxide bond which is the key to its clinically-proven anti-malarial activity. There’s no evidence presented by Dr.Verma that Artemisin (Santonin) from Sea Wormwood has any clinically-validated anti-malarial activity at all. It’s Apples and Oranges – it is bogus claims like these that tend to make Indian science a laughing stock in the rest of the world.

    • Bobserver

      Thank you for clearing that up.
      Also if you look up Verma’s reference you can see that the analysis of the Indian herb was done by a chap called Church at Kew, London. He worked out that artemisin’s formula as C15H18O4 whereas the nobel prize winning formula, artemisinin, is C15H22O5 , a very big difference in the chemical and biological world.

      • Taya

        Thank you very much to you both. I read your comment and also did some research on my own about the compounds. I think it is good that IUPAC (? most likely) is calling it “Santonin.” it is also sad that we have so many people in science who are doing science for nationalism or instant fame. That really makes it quite upsetting.

        • Bobserver

          And on this mistake Verma’s Facebook page has taken off and he had been approached for interviews on Indian media.
          Even if it had been the same chemical, Verma is mistaken in calling for it also to be awarded the Nobel for Indian traditional medicine for a vague description of a plant that may have helped with fever. Tu Youyou of China did not win a Nobel for Chinese Herbal Medicine but for the proven extract’s ability in tackling the effects of malaria. And that is where Verma falls down again as his own picture of that book reference states that it was Church of Kew, London that did the research on the Indian plant’s extracts in the late 19th century.

          • Taya

            And scientists should NOT post on Facebook! We have journals and publications. He (Verma) is trying to be a media star as opposed to a science star. Only the media would report something like this. No self-respecting journal would even look at this.

        • Siva

          There’s more (easily found with a Google and Wiki search) – Santonin, even when administered as an anti-helminthic (de-worming) treatment, had serious and potentially fatal side-effects, which ultimately caused it to be withdrawn in the ’50s. It is no longer legally available as a pharmaceutical anywhere in the EU or North America for those reasons. It is highly doubtful if it was ever clinically validated for use as an anti-malarial treatment in India or anywhere else – the source is not native to India, and all the work on extraction, isolation and characterization of the active ingredient had been performed by European botanists and chemists, including Jaffe, Church, Chisholm, etc. There’s no connection to India at all, except that it appeared in a book compilation of herbal treatments for a variety of ailments in 1918. The primary references to Artemisin (Santonin) in that book are all European – it had already been described in detail in an Encyclopaedia Britannica article in 1911 by Chisholm.

          Certainly, if Santonin had any anti-malarial activity, it would have been noted in the intervening years, especially during WW2, where anti-malarial agents were in huge demand in the Burma theatre. It definitely would not have been missed by scientists between 1900 and 1945, when a cure for Malaria was the highest priority of the medical fraternity, starting with the first Nobel for Medicine won by an Indian-born physician (Ronald Ross) in 1902.