Secret war on malaria

As part of a secret government project begun in 1967, the Chinese scientist Tu Youyou discovered an ancient herbal remedy that would end up saving millions of lives.

Tu Youyou
Bengt Nyman / CC BY-SA

Let me begin with two caveats: I think most alternative medicine is fairly useless – as the joke from Tim Minchin goes, what do they call alternative medicine that has been proved to work? Medicine. But I also know that many modern medicines are derived from traditional remedies: aspirin from willow bark, codeine from opium poppies, quinine from cinchona bark. Much of 20th and 21st century pharmacology has focused on identifying, isolating, and selling medically useful compounds (often, it should be noted, without giving much back to the communities from which they came).

In 1967, more people in North Vietnam were dying of malaria than were being killed in the Vietnam War. The North Vietnamese government sent a request to the Chinese government to help them battle malaria. The result was Project 523 (so called because it launched on May 23, 1967). Hundreds of Chinese scientists were gathered together to find a solution as quickly as possible.

It is a historical irony that Project 523 began the year after the Cultural Revolution in China, which attacked or “purged” scientists and intellectuals throughout the country. Perhaps its status as a secret military project is what saved it.

Tu Youyou was one of the leading scientists in Project 523. She investigated traditional Chinese herbal medicine for likely candidates. In a sixteen hundred year old Chinese medicine book – The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies – she found more than forty potential malaria treatments. Testing began.

Sweet wormwood was a very promising candidate. The research team tried boiling the wormwood but the resulting brew had no anti-malarial properties. Tu noted that the ancient medicine book actually steeped the wormwood in cold water, so she tried that instead. And in doing so she found a compound known as artemisinin. Boiling destroyed it, but a cold brew kept the chemical intact… and it turned out to be very effective against malaria. Scarily effective.

Today artemisinin is one of the foremost treatments for malaria, and in the last forty years has probably saved millions of lives. For her discovery Tu Youyou was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.


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