Friday 19 January 2018

Nobel Prize for Mao's top-secret scientist

Tu Youyou: led secret research programme
Tu Youyou: led secret research programme

Colin Freeman in London

A Chinese scientist who pioneered a malaria treatment for Communist troops in the Vietnam War has won the Nobel Prize for Medicine.

Tu Youyou led a secret programme set up by Mao Tse-tung to see if traditional Chinese herbal cures could reduce the number of North Vietnamese troops dying of malaria.

After sifting through thousands of folk remedies, she finally unearthed a 1,600-year-old recipe using sweet wormwood that formed the basis for one of the most effective treatments to have been discovered.

Under Mao's Cultural Revolution, which saw academics as part of the bourgeoisie, Mrs Tu's name was kept secret for decades, and until recently, even colleagues had never heard of her achievements.

Now, though, at the age of 84, she has finally taken her place in medical history, with the Nobel judges announcing yesterday that she would be a joint winner of this year's €858,000 award.

The other two winners are Donegal-born William Campbell and Japan's Satoshi Omura, who developed avermectin, derivatives of which are used to treat river blindness and elephantiasis.

"The two discoveries have provided humankind with powerful new means to combat these debilitating diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people annually," the Nobel committee said.

"The consequences in terms of improved human health and reduced suffering are immeasurable."

Mrs Tu's work created the drug artemisinin, which forms part of the mainstay of malaria treatment in Africa. Used in tandem with insecticide-impregnated bed nets, it is credited with helping to halve malaria mortality rates worldwide in the last 15 years.

Yet for decades, its exact origins remained unknown, as did the story of its creator. In 1969, Mrs Tu was recruited to Mao's Project 523 to investigate cures for malaria, which in the 1960s was developing resistance to drugs.

The disease was taking a heavy toll on the North Vietnamese army, which was losing more soldiers to malaria than to American bombs and bullets.

Mrs Tu, who had studied both Chinese and Western medicines, reviewed 2,000 ancient herbal recipes. One of them, written in a 1,600-year-old text called "Emergency Prescriptions Kept Up One's Sleeve", recommended soaking sweet wormwood in water and then drinking the resulting juice.

It proved highly effective when tried out on mice and monkeys, although it then had to be tested on humans. As head of the research group, Mrs Tu volunteered to be the first test subject. (©Daily Telegraph, London)

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