Project 523: From Chinese Secrets to Nobel Gold
☯ On May 23, 1967 a secret military project was launched by the Chinese government. It was the height of the Vietnam war, and the communist north was losing more soldiers to the scourge of malaria than to the battlefield. An emergency plea was made to a powerful sympathizer, Chairman Mao Zedong, to find a cure. Code named Project 523 (after the date), more than 500 scientists were recruited from 60 military and civilian organizations, remarkably at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution which closed universities and banished scientists and intellectuals. One group of scientists was tasked with searching through ancient Chinese records of herbal remedies.
☯ 39 year old phytochemist, Youyou Tu, was sent to the sweltering rain forests of Hainan, an island in southern China, where she witnessed the devastation of malaria first hand. By then, many ancient herbal compounds had been tested. The extract of quinghao (green-blue wormwood) appeared to be effective, but success was sporadic. Tu carefully read the recipe of 4th century writing of Ge Hong: qinghao, one bunch, take two sheng [2 × 0.2 l] of water for soaking it, wring it out, take the juice, ingest it in its entirety. Tu reasoned that extraction by boiling might destroy the active ingredient. So she tested a cold ether extract of the plant and it worked. She even voluntarily consumed the extract to make sure it was safe, then tested it on human patients. Her results were published anonymously in 1977. Today, 84 year old Youyou Tu received the Nobel Prize for Medicine, which she shared with two other scientists, an Irishman and Japanese, who worked on treatment of other parasitic diseases.
☯ The success of artemisinin as a modern day miracle cure for Plasmodium falciparum malaria (spread by mosquitoes, and blamed annually for 1 million deaths world wide), rests on the breakthroughs of hundreds of scientists. Those who discovered a richer source of the drug in Artemisia annua grown in Sichuan province, those who purified the drug away from toxic contaminants, who solved the new and unusual chemical structure, synthesized better and safer derivatives for the treatment of malaria. While celebrating her success as the first Chinese woman to receive a Nobel in Medicine, let us not forget that Youyou Tu’s Nobel represents an entire field of research. Tu herself is a modest individual who has drifted into obscurity despite receiving a Lasker Award, the so-called American Nobel, in 2011. At the time, she said, “I think the honor not only belongs to me but also to all Chinese scientists.”
Project 523: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_523
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