Yesterday, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou became one of three biologists to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology for Medicine for discovering “therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of some of the most devastating parasitic diseases.” Tu’s story is exceptionally interesting, in that she did amazing work based on traditional Chinese knowledge, as part of a covert military initiative to find anti-malarial drugs, which took place against the backdrop of the Cultural Revolution. As one scientist told me: “Society had been ripped apart, there was still a lot of oppression, and facilities were poor. But they did some extremely good chemistry.”
The drug that emerged from that initiative, which went by the wonderfully clandestine name of Project 523, was artemisinin—a wonder drug that has saved countless lives from malaria.
Last year, I told the story of the drug’s rise in a long feature that covers how it was discovered, how it arrived in the midst of a losing war against drug-resistant malarial parasites, and how scientists working in South-East Asia are now frantically working to stop the next generation of resistant parasites from spreading around the world and rendering this most precious of weapons obsolete:
Hundreds of scientists are developing innovative new ways of dealing with malaria, from potential vaccines to new drugs, genetically modified mosquitoes to lethal fungi. As [François] Nosten sees it, none of these will be ready in time. The only way of stopping artemisinin resistance, he says, is to completely remove malaria from its cradle of resistance.
“If you want to eliminate artemisinin resistance, you have to eliminate malaria,” says Nosten. Not control it, not contain it. Eliminate it. That makes the Moei river more than a border between nations. It’s Stalingrad. It’s Thermopylae. It’s the last chance for halting the creeping obsolescence of our best remaining drug. What happens here will decide the fate of millions.
Read more about the significance of Youyou’s work in this tribute from Fallows last night.