Chairman, Wellcome Trust SE Asian Tropical Medicine Research Programme.
How did you get into the field of malaria research?
I trained as a doctor and went to Nepal in 1974. I worked in Oxford from 1977 to 1980, when I was offered a post at a new research unit in Thailand. I still do two months of clinical medicine at the John Radcliffe Hospital every year; I appreciate and enjoy the practice of medicine and patient care.
What is Artemisinin and how did you first discover its links to the treatment of malaria?
Artemisinin is a chemical compound extracted from the tips of the leaves of a plant called Artemisia annua. I first read about Artemisinin in a Chinese medical journal 30 years ago while I was studying the treatment of severe malaria in eastern Thailand. I went to China in 1981 to find out more.
Did you face any challenges getting Artemisinin to be taken seriously as a new malaria treatment?
The World Health Organization initially dissuaded us from using Chinese drugs as they felt the products were poor quality. But by the late 1980s, widespread resistance to traditional malaria treatments in South East Asia meant that Chinese drugs became the only option. Eventually we developed Artemisinin-based Combination Therapies (ACT) and these became the first-line treatment for falciparum malaria, the most dangerous form of malaria. It was a slow and painful process to get the drugs accepted; people are often suspicious of herbal medicines. The irony is that the malaria drug the Artemisinins have replaced for the treatment of severe malaria is quinine – and that comes from the bark of a Peruvian tree!
Now that you have proved that Artemisinin is effective at treating malaria, what are the implications?
We have recently completed the largestever trials in severe malaria and our results, published in The Lancet, show that Artesunate (an Artemisinin derivative) reduces the death rate from malaria by 35% in adults in South East Asia, and by 23% in children in Africa. If just half the children with severe malaria in the world could access these drugs we could save 100,000 lives a year.
What is the ideal balance between applied science and pure research?
A lot of medical research doesn't lead to any tangible benefit to human health. In developing countries where death in childhood is a common event, a greater proportion of medical research must translate into something useful.
What will you be working on next?
I think we can make a considerable global improvement in morbidity and mortality by improving the use of existing medicines. It's time-consuming and expensive to develop new drugs, but by giving currently available drugs at the right time, in the right way, and in the right doses, we could achieve a great deal. Around 800,000 children in Africa die every year from malaria, but it's estimated that 3–4 million infants die every week throughout the world in the post-natal period, mostly from problems occurring during pregnancy and birth. We could save a great many lives in the developing world by helping women have safer pregnancies and giving children drugs in the correct doses.
What would you like to have achieved in 10 years' time?
I would like to make a measurable improvement to the treatment of infectious diseases in the tropics, and in particular reduce mortality from severe febrile infections.
Professor Nick White received the 2010 Canada Gairdner Global Health Award – the first major international award that recognises individual contributions to health in the developing world – for his role in proving that Artemisinin, a compound used for over 1,000 years in Chinese medicine, is a highly effective treatment for malaria.