Project 523: From Chinese Secrets to Nobel Gold

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:

Nobel Press Release:

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61 Responses to Project 523: From Chinese Secrets to Nobel Gold

  1. John Bump says:

    Man, that bridged peroxide in that molecule makes my eyes bug out.

  2. Rajini Rao says:

    Artemesinin is the only natural compound with that unusual bridged peroxide, so I’m glad you brought that up John Bump . It is also thought to be responsible for the mode of action: cleaved by iron to generate damaging free radicals. Perhaps you know more! 

  3. Jean Liss says:

    I knew a few people who were imprisoned during the cultural revolution. Scary times to be a scientist in China.

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Jean Liss one of my Chinese friends mentioned that these were dark ages of Chinese history and it is ironic that so much progress was made then. His parents and millions of others could not get an education those days. 

  5. Rajini Rao says:

    Guanqing Pan yes, definitely herbal medicines are worth a revisit and hopefully they can be evaluated using placebo controls.

  6. Dean Calahan says:

    I used artemesinin in my thesis (among a various other drugs) to inhibit mitochondrial function in yeast.

  7. Rajini Rao says:

    Dean Calahan that’s cool! Was it iron mediated and did it affect respiration? 

  8. Jim Gorycki says:

    Thanks. Interesting story I heard on npr news on how the scientists had to do research at night, feared of authorities (it was during the cultural revolution).

  9. Rajini Rao says:

    Hmm, interesting Jim Gorycki ! In general, this was a time when research was looked upon with suspicion although Project 523 was a big, government sanctioned activity. 

  10. John Bump says:

    Rajini Rao — I don’t know more, but had never seen anything like that outside of a lab.  I, too, would be interested in hearing more about Dean Calahan’s thesis work.

  11. Rajini Rao says:

    Also, I’d be curious if the yeast developed resistance to artemisinin. I hope not. 

  12. John Bump says:

    Huh.  I wonder if peroxidase cleaves that?

  13. Steve S says:

    When it comes to Chinese herbal medicine, the science is nonsense but the technology is valuable.

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    Steve S artemisinin has been put through clinical trials and validated rigorously, so it is an example of a herbal medicine that works, i.e., medicine! Having learned the lesson of resistance, there are now strict WHO guidelines on how the drug is used: in combination with other drugs to minimize the emergence of resistance. 

  15. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao Right, the medicine can work because it’s been tested, but the theory behind it is silly.

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Not clear, what theory?

  17. Jim Carver says:

    We worked with Artemesia in the early 90s for a while. I even tried to grow it. My attempts failed and we speculated that the Chinese had sterilized the seed to protect market share.

    I glanced at a report not too long ago that said resistance is increasing and before long it will no longer be effective. They had some guidelines to follow to help slow the process.

    Sorry, I’m under the weather and can’t expand on that right now.

  18. Dr. Cassone says:

    Excellent write up Rajini Rao​ 🙂

  19. Steve S says:

    Rajini Rao I’m referring to the theory behind Chinese medicine, which Guanqing Pan quite correctly described as “not even wrong”.

  20. Kam-Yung Soh says:

    This article from Nature Medicine should be of interest [ ]:

    “The discovery of artemisinin (qinghaosu) and gifts from Chinese medicine

    Youyou Tu,

    Nature Medicine 17, 1217–1220 (2011) doi:10.1038/nm.2471

    Published online 11 October 2011″

  21. Rajini Rao I thank you for the history lesson. It was a very interesting read. I’ve been experiencing some various illnesses lately and started taking black seed cold pressed, with honey and ginger mixed with black tea for acid reflux. A long with changing my diet, is there any herb that you would suggest for acid reflux?

  22. Jim Carver says:

    Marcus Mustafa ibn Levi Several herbs can be helpful, but limonene works best and you don’t have to keep taking it forever. Life Extension has a research article about it. You can google that. I recommended Co Q10 w/limonene for my son and it worked. Take deglycyrrhizinated licorice (DGL) 380 mg 3 times a day before meals. All three of these work together and will prevent/heal an esophageal ulcer. This works far better and is cheaper than pharma.

    It’s important to stay away from dairy unless it’s soured (like yogurt is okay) and highly processed junk food.

  23. Jim Carver I appreciate your suggestion. Now will the Q10 w/limonene and (DGL) be available at a Herb store or GNC?

  24. Dean Calahan says:

    Rajini Rao don’t know about the iron, but the point was to inhibit respiration, which I did in several independent ways, including driving the DNA out of the mitochondria. Turns out yeast need to be actively respiring if you want them to survive desiccation (although this situation can be genetically reversed, a finding evidently worth a doctorate!)

  25. Jim Carver says:

    Marcus Mustafa ibn Levi Yes, these are common products although you will probably find them cheaper at Life Extension and probably I like LE for most of my products due to their quality control standards and excellent customer service.

    Here’s the long story about GERD:

    Here’s a Q & A by Roger C. Willette, MD, an internal medicine specialist in Houston, Texas. Dr. Willette has conducted clinical trials of natural remedies in the management of gastroesophageal symptoms.

  26. Dean Calahan says:

    John Bump, Rajini Rao, I didn’t expose the yeast to artemesinin long enough to determine whether they built up a resistance. Yeast are very happy to propagate without respiration, so unless they managed to start efficiently respiring in the presence of the drug there might not be any difference in doubling time that would be magnified over the generations.

  27. Jim Carver says:

    Dean Calahan I thought most yeasts require oxygen to reproduce?

  28. Dean Calahan says:

    Jim Carver, well, for beer making, if the yeast is burning oxygen, it is eating alcohol. Veddy veddy bad. The yeasts I worked with were all facultative anaerobes, preferring to ferment (an anaerobic process) sugars when they are available and only switching to respiration to burn, say, alcohol or acetate or glycerol only when their preferred food is depleted.

    (Note, a tiny little bit of oxygen is required for sterol synthesis, an essential process, so no yeast is wholly anaerobic).

    Note: for sexual reproduction respiration does seem to be necessary; however for simple cell division it is certainly not.

  29. Jim Carver says:

    Dean Calahan Ah, very good, thanks.:)

  30. Jim Gorycki says:

    To elaborate on my previous message, scientists were sent to rural country side. Not all of them. Plus the people working at labor farms didn’t know the deal some scientists had with mao.

  31. Ed King says:

    Great minds think alike sort of like the power of insight when more than one force is present! 

  32. Cooper Joe says:

    most Chinese people think traditional herbal medicine is more effective than modern medicine. This nobel prize to Tu will mislead Chinese people to another enthusiasm of Chinese Traditional Medicine.  Almost any Chinese medicine is ineffective.that will be a waste of money on that. so terrible.

  33. Ed King says:

    The power We all have in Our minds is almost the answer alone.

  34. Ed King says:

    If We only had immunity to the diseases of Our chosen community.

  35. Jim Carver I sincerely appreciate the resources you provided.

  36. And the quiet, publicity-less (outside china) work, the perseverence, the secret medicine, to be used by China,… It’s from another time. Respect!

  37. Rajini Rao Jim Carver Dean Calahan

    My comments below might look to be little irrelevant to the post but the idea of ignoring role of traditional medicine or accepting it as a magic both struck a chord.

    Comment on traditional medicine:

    Either it is Chinese or Ayurveda or any such thing-

    The medicine of that time was exceptional based on the tools available at that time.

    Using very detailed observation and almost forced to use holistic and wholistic approach provided tremendous benefits to the local population at that time.

    We must accept this.

    Today, we can take three items from that approach-

    1. We should not outright disregard the claims made. Even today, there are modern medicines with very suspect results. Studies are conducted but data is messed up.

    It is just a fact that many recent studies on drugs is very suspicious. Read study by Stanford scientist on his review of data in the medical studies.

    We should document all claims from the traditional medicine. But evaluate each and every claim if possible.

    For example, claims of Gokshuradi Gugul on joint problems. Use of sesame oil in various anti microbial uses have some merits.

    2. One reason why many in the developing world get attracted to traditional medicine is the significant financial motives of big pharma. We need scientists to stand up and stop the abuse.

    3. We need to educate where traditional medicine just makes a false claim. Cleaning up this mess can help millions of people.

    But at the same time some good practices are to be accepted. One area I am always worried about in the western medicine is to disregard the role of food type in decease management.

    In the past, many times in India, there was some emphasis on what to eat of what not to eat.

    When I go to a modern doctor in US, the discussion on food type does not occur.

    I think, the traditional medicine is much sophisticated in this regard. I expect the modern medicine to accept this in coming years.

    But today, there is too much emphasis on taking drugs to manage the conditions.

  38. Rajini Rao says:

    I agree that we should neither ignore traditional medicine nor accept it as magic! There are potentially many old medicines and practices that we should evaluate with modern tools and rigor.

     mandar khadilkar when I had my first child in the US, I was advised by doctors to lay her on her stomach. In India, babies are placed on their backs (often with their heads resting on a ring of twisted fabric to mold the shape of their skulls!). By the time I had my second child, studies had shown that babies lying on their stomachs could succumb to SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) and I was advised to place my son on his back.  There are many traditional practices that make scientific sense, but many that don’t! 

  39. Interesting! Just within few years the recommendation changed related to the best practice. You moms must be feeling guilty.

    Also, I feel there is this fad of next big food craze every few years.

    And then the-

    Milk is bad, milk is good, coffee is bad coffee is good, high fat diet, low fat diet on and on and on.

    Common people are confused! I am!

  40. thank you for this Ms. Rao. I am honored to be a Chinese scientist today.

  41. xizzle says:

    I’m Chinese 😛

  42. Thanks for this information thanks to scientists also.

  43. khang nguyen says:


    m.wi ipw😑😮😃wf



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