Yesterday, Tu Youyou became one of three scientists to win this year’s Nobel Prize for medicine for her discovery of what has become a standard antimalarial treatment, artemisinin. But, remarkably, the public had no idea about Tu’s lifesaving achievement until just four years ago.
The backstory behind the 84-year-old Chinese pharmacologist’s work is incredible: In 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. Hundreds of communist soldiers, fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, were falling ill from malaria, and the disease was also killing thousands in southern China.
After Chinese scientists were initially unable to use synthetic chemicals to treat the mosquito-borne disease, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine. Tu, a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, had studied both Chinese and Western medicine, according to a New Scientist profile, and was hand-plucked to search for an herbal cure.
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