Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The secret Maoist Chinese operation that conquered malaria — and won a Nobel

1964 poster: "Prevent Malaria and Take Care of People's Health." Painted by Wu Hao.

By Jia-Chen Fu, Assistant Professor of Chinese at Emory
For The Conversation

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, Project 523 – a covert operation launched by the Chinese government and headed by a young Chinese medical researcher by the name of Tu Youyou – discovered what has been the most powerful and effective antimalarial drug therapy to date.

Known in Chinese as qinghaosu and derived from the sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua L.), artemisinin was only one of several hundred substances Tu and her team of researchers culled from Chinese drugs and folk remedies and systematically tested in their search for a treatment to chloroquine-resistant malaria.

How Tu and her team discovered artemisinin tells us much about the continual Chinese effort to negotiate between traditional/modern and indigenous/foreign.

Indeed, contrary to popular assumptions that Maoist China was summarily against science and scientists, the Communist party-state needed the scientific elite for certain political and practical purposes.

Medicine, particularly when it also involved foreign relations, was one such area. In this case, it was the war in Vietnam and the scourge of malaria that led to the organization of Project 523.

North Vietnamese soldiers had to deal with disease as well as the enemy. (Photo via manhhai, CC.)

As fighting escalated between American and Vietnamese forces throughout the 1960s, malaria became the number one affliction compromising Vietnamese soldier health. The increasing number of chloroquine-resistant malaria cases in the civilian population further heightened North Vietnamese concern.

In 1964, the North Vietnamese government approached Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung and asked for Chinese assistance in combating malaria. Mao responded, “Solving your problem is the same as solving our own.”

From the beginning, Project 523, which was classified as a top-secret state mission, was under the direction of military authorities. Although civilian agencies were invited to collaborate in May 1967, military supervision highlighted the urgent nature of the research and protected it from adverse political winds.

The original three-year plan produced by the People’s Liberation Army Research Institute aimed to: "integrate far and near, integrate Chinese and Western medicines, take Chinese drugs as its priority, emphasize innovation, unify plans, divide labor to work together."

Project 523 had three goals: the identification of new drug treatments for fighting chloroquine-resistant malaria, the development of long-term preventative measures against chloroquine-resistant malaria, and the development of mosquito repellents. To achieve these ends, research on Chinese drugs and acupuncture was integral.

Read more in The Conversation.

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