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China Medicine The Military

The Top Secret Chinese Military Project That Led To a Nobel Prize 73

HughPickens.com writes: Jeff Guo reports at the Washington Post that development of qinghaosu — or artemisinin — is one of modern China's proudest accomplishments winning a Noble Prize in Medicine this year for Tu Youyou, but it's also a story about Communism, Chairman Mao, and China's return to the world economy. On May 23, 1967, Chinese scientists commenced Project 523, a secret effort that enlisted hundreds of researchers to discover a new malaria drug during the Vietnam War. Although in a better warfare position, the People's Army of Vietnam (North Vietnamese Army) and its allies in the South, Viet Cong, suffered increasing mortality because of malaria epidemics. The project began at the height of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, a brutal time during which academics and intellectuals were murdered, imprisoned, or sent to "reeducation camps" in mass purges.

For doctors and chemists. Project 523 was a lifeline, according to Professor Zhou Yiqing. "By the time Project 523 had got under way, the Cultural Revolution had started and the research provided shelter for scientists facing political persecution." Tu's husband had been banished to the countryside when she was asked to get involved in Project 523. Tu's research project sought to find modern logic in ancient ways, much as the French researchers identified quinine from the bark of the cinchona tree. According to Tu, she and her team screened over 2,000 different Chinese herbs described in old texts, of which about 200 were good enough to test in mice. That's when they hit upon a plant called Artemisia annua: annual wormwood, or qinghao in Chinese. At the time, all of this work remained a Chinese military secret; some of the results were published in Chinese-language journals, but it would be well after the death of Mao Zedong until China would reveal that it had discovered a surprisingly potent new weapon against malaria.

According to Guo the lion's share of the credit rightly goes to Tu and the countless other Chinese scientists who worked on Project 523. But Oxford anthropologist Elisabeth Hsu suggests that the political climate at the time also deserves recognition. Qinghaosu might never have been discovered had it not been for Maoist China's nationalist infatuation with Chinese folk medicine. "It was thus a feature specific to institutions of the People's Republic of China that scientists, who themselves had learnt ways of appreciating traditional knowledge, worked side by side with historians of traditional medicine, who had textual learning," Hsu argues. "This was crucial for the 'discovery' of qinghao."
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The Top Secret Chinese Military Project That Led To a Nobel Prize

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  • by Kiaser Zohsay ( 20134 ) on Sunday October 11, 2015 @09:33AM (#50703585)

    Experiment 626 is what we are really anxious to hear about.

    • Experiment 626 is what we are really anxious to hear about.

      Dude, you've been back into the Experiment 420 again, haven't you.

  • Seriously? In the same summary that describes how the French found quinine from cinchona? In a world where scientists developed aspirin because of people's use of plants for thousands of years? This is hardly unique to China.

  • Spoils of War (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rmdingler ( 1955220 ) on Sunday October 11, 2015 @09:52AM (#50703643) Journal
    From the far reaches of Mao's introverted China to the warring nations of the West, and yonder into the African continent, the propensity towards a warring culture is synonymous with humankind.

    It seems like we are at our industrious best when working in concert during a time of great conflict.

    Sadly, times of contentment and peace are seemingly less productive. Do we require strife to excel?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It would appear so. It's my personal belief that we wouldn't be anywhere near as far along as we are right now if it hadn't have been for Hitler, Japanese foolish enough to bomb Americans at Pearl Harbor and WW2 in its entirety.

      It was a massive push that changed everything in so many ways. It's scary. It's irony to the max. But it is what it is.

      • Exactly Where would the world be without nuclear power, satellites, microcomputers. It would probably look something like the 1950's with many of today's problems and no tools for solving them.
    • by Zumbs ( 1241138 )

      It seems like we are at our industrious best when working in concert during a time of great conflict.

      Working in concert can indeed produce great things quite fast. War is not required (e.g. the Apollo program), but in our typically competitive and anarchistic cultures, the people with money to invest prefer personal profit to the common good, so sharing and working in concert does not apply to the competition. The government can step in and enforce cooperation, which sometimes happen during a war economy, but it also means limiting the rights of the rich and powerful, sometimes with a big, fat lump of cash

    • Mater artium necessitas [wikipedia.org]

      The science historian James Burke [wikipedia.org] once remarked something like historically, the only good things science is for is making money and making war. Even the internet came directly out of war related projects.

    • Do we require strife to excel?

      No, far from it. The existence of pressing problems puts an emphasis on finding solutions, obviously, but finding a solution is only possible because enough research, often basic research, has taken place for years or decades of peace before, when the conditions favoured it. Most of the scientific development in the West was only made possible because a number of eminient scientists had the opportunity to think deeply about idle, philosophical curiosities some time in the middle of last millennium - idle cu

      • yes. How easy it is to forget the pioneers of philosophy, ethics, science, and debate were often persecuted for their efforts.

        It could be safely stated that defying convention is still potentially dangerous, even in this more enlightened time.

    • by e r ( 2847683 )
      Your post, rmdingler, needs just a little more effort to be made into a haiku and then it'll be an awesome post.
      My humble attempt:

      Strife yields Man's best.
      Peace is not as bountiful.
      What is excellence?

  • Somebody has to say it, since it's being overlooked in the summary. This project is an outspringing from the Cultural Revolution's 'Barefoot Doctor' movement. [wikipedia.org]

  • by alvinrod ( 889928 ) on Sunday October 11, 2015 @10:13AM (#50703729)
    When's her birthday, because being able to sing "Happy birthday to Tu Youyou" is way to awesome to miss.
  • by virve ( 63803 ) on Sunday October 11, 2015 @10:35AM (#50703787)

    I was truly happy when I heard that the Nobel prize had been awarded for the discovery and development of artemisinin. This drug has saved the lives of many.

    Sad that substandard preparations of artemisinin has led to spread of resistance in Indochina.

    --
    virve

  • Burden of proof. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DerekLyons ( 302214 ) <fairwater.gmail@com> on Sunday October 11, 2015 @11:15AM (#50703925) Homepage

    From TFS: "According to Tu, she and her team screened over 2,000 different Chinese herbs described in old texts, of which about 200 were good enough to test in mice. That's when they hit upon a plant called Artemisia annua: annual wormwood, or qinghao in Chinese."

    Yeah, I've already heard from from my crunchy greenie friends about how this "proves" the value of traditional medicine. That one text mentions on herb that worked, and 1,999 texts listed herbs that didn't shows the exact opposite... completely escapes them.

    • by Nutria ( 679911 )

      Exactly. A 99.95% failure rate is -- to say the least -- Bad.

      • Of the advances in drug testing in recent years, one is a technique to test a hundred or so substances at once. Until computational methods allow prediction of what chemicals will cure what disease, scattershot procedures are necessary. Considering that hundreds of Chinese researchers took many years to screen only 2000 things, that's not a very efficient record.

        Of course, it's valid to ask if this drug's 1 in 2000 discovery is better than what would have resulted in testing thousands of plants completely a

        • by Nutria ( 679911 )

          assuming that everything old was written by fools or charlatans seems like an error.

          I don't assume that *everything* old was written by fools or charlatans. After all, it's from where we derived morphine, acetylsalicylic acid and chloroquine.

          But for every effective traditional medicine, there were hundreds of "medicines" like rhino horn for limp dick, homeopathy, mercury injections for syphilis an cocaine and opium patent medicines for... just about everything.

      • >Exactly. A 99.95% failure rate is -- to say the least -- Bad.

        1) When Western pharmaceutical companies are doing a screen, how many of those chemicals turn out not to work on malaria?

        2) Where do pharmaceutical companies look when they're screening new chemicals?

        3) How many of the TCM drugs were effective against malaria, just not "wonder drug" effective?

        4) How many of the TCM drugs screened were effective at other diseases?

        Until you can answer those questions, you cannot make that conclusion.

        I've done co

        • by Nutria ( 679911 )

          1) When Western pharmaceutical companies are doing a screen, how many of those chemicals turn out not to work on malaria?

          Since those chemicals aren't published as being cures, the comparison to TCM is wholly invalid.

          3) How many of the TCM drugs were effective against malaria, just not "wonder drug" effective?

          That's a good question.

          have read through UCSF's "alt med bible" detailing all the thousands of studies on the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of various alt med drugs.

          And???? How many were effective?

          (I'm betting that it's Very Few, since "alt med" that is proven successful isn't "alt med" anymore.)

          • >(I'm betting that it's Very Few, since "alt med" that is proven successful isn't "alt med" anymore.)

            While I acknowledge the meme, alt med is actually defined by every major medical organization in the world as something that is not used as part of mainstream medicine. It's not an assessment of effectiveness.

            Quite a bit of the drugs in the alt med bible were wholly ineffective, and quite a few more had weak or modest medicinal purposes (tea alone had hundreds of studies showing its mild effectiveness in

    • Yeah, I've already heard from from my crunchy greenie friends about how this "proves" the value of traditional medicine. That one text mentions on herb that worked, and 1,999 texts listed herbs that didn't shows the exact opposite... completely escapes them.

      To be fair, those traditional herbal medicines were not all supposed to be malaria cures specifically. In fact this particular herb was a general cure for fever.

      From Artemisinin: Discovery from the Chinese Herbal Garden [nih.gov]:
      During their search, Youyou Tu and colleagues investigated more than 2,000 recipes of Chinese traditional herbs, compiling 640 recipes that might have some antimalarial activity.

      Of course, traditional techniques for extracting the compound to make the medicine were still wrong though, so y

    • by Zumbs ( 1241138 )
      200 out of 2000 is a 10% success rate which is pretty good compared to randomly trying stuff out until something works. Given that they found one out of the 200 that was better than the state of the art, I'd say score one for applying the scientific method to traditional medicine.
      • by Nutria ( 679911 )

        200 out of 2000 is a 10% success rate

        If by "success" you mean "good enough to test on mice". How many were good enough to test on humans?

        Given that they found one out of the 200 that was better than the state of the art, I'd say score one for applying the scientific method to traditional medicine.

        The state of the art (chloroquine) was derived from a traditional medicine.

        The manifest problem with "traditional medicine" isn't that none of them work, but that so damned few work, and yet fools still run around saying how all traditional is soooo great.

        • by Zumbs ( 1241138 )

          200 out of 2000 is a 10% success rate

          If by "success" you mean "good enough to test on mice". How many were good enough to test on humans?

          Good point. TFA does not specify how their screening process worked, though. TFA also does not specify how many actually helped against malaria, just that one was really good, nor does it say anything about testing the herbs against other ailments.

          The manifest problem with "traditional medicine" isn't that none of them work, but that so damned few work, and yet fools still run around saying how all traditional is soooo great.

          It is my impression that many practitioners of traditional medicine actively refuses to let their methods be subject to clinical tests, so we have no empirical data to estimate the ability of the treatment to heal a given ailment or its side effects. Mighty suspic

      • 200 out of 2000 is a 10% success rate which is pretty good compared to randomly trying stuff out until something works.

        They tested 200 out of 2000 - but only one worked. Thus the proper number is 1 of 2000 - a success rate of .05%, not 10%.

        • by Zumbs ( 1241138 )
          TFA does not say anything about the remaining 199, just that one of the 200 herbs selected for mice test was very successful at treating malaria. For all we know, the 199 others could be anything from toxic to useful against malaria. It is also worth noting that the 2000 herbs were not claimed to be good against malaria, but they were only tested against malaria, so some could feasibly be good against other ailments.
          • they were only tested against malaria, so some could feasibly be good against other ailments.

            The criteria was "successful against malaria" - so their value in treating other conditions is irrelevant to determining the success rate against malaria. Either they meet the criteria, or they don't.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I'm an acupuncturist and herbalist in the U.S. All chinese herbalists are trained with knowledge of qing hao, which has been known for a couple thousand years as an herb that can be used in the treatment of many tropical diseases, including malaria. I have treated several people with sequelae of several tropical diseases contracted during scientific expeditions overseas, and have seen the effectiveness of herbs in treatment.

      I believe that the scientists involved must not have consulted any actual chinese do

  • Artemisia, wormwood, absinthe.

    All that is old is new again.
    --
    Like any other commodity, experience can be purchased.

What this country needs is a good five cent ANYTHING!

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