Few people are aware that Tu Youyou, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine on Monday, has Mao Zedong to thank for the discovery of artemisinin.
At the peak of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, one of China’s few allies, North Vietnam, reached out to Chairman Mao for assistance. North Vietnam was at war with South Vietnam and the United States, and malaria was rampant in the region.
Struggling to deal with a malaria-ridden army, Vietnamese Prime Minister Ho Chi Minh requested Chairman Mao to establish a secret military research programme to look for a cure for malaria within the traditional Chinese medicine. Project 523 (as it began on May 23) began its search for a cure in 1967. It was officially shut down in 1981.
Mao’s prompting led to Tu’s discovery
For nearly two millennia, Chinese healers were using leaves from the sweet wormwood plant to cure fevers. Tu’s team collected 2,000 recipes from 640 herbs, which Tu narrowed down to a few promising candidates. The project resulted in the discovery of the anti-malarial drug, artimesinin, which is one of the most successful transformations of traditional therapy into modern medicine.
“Within a couple of years, hundreds of scientists had tested thousands of synthetic compounds without success, and it was common knowledge that a similar programme in the U.S. had drawn a blank too,” notes a report in New Scientist , published on Monday soon after the announcement of the prize. “With no synthetic drugs forthcoming, attention turned to China’s traditional medicines. The government asked the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing to appoint one of its researchers to scour China’s herb garden for a cure. The academy chose Tu, a mid-career scientist who had studied both Chinese and western medicine and knew enough about both to realise it would not be an easy job.” Tu followed instructions in a 1600-year-old text titled ‘Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One’s Sleeve.’ The text stated that the sweet wormwood herb must be soaked in water and the juice consumed.
“The researchers tested the potion on monkeys and mice and found it to be 100 per cent effective,” Tu is quoted in the New Scientist report as saying. “We had just cured drug-resistant malaria,” Tu says. “We were very excited.”