Ancient Chinese Recipe Leads to Nobel Prize

By Ed Yong
Ed Yong
Ed Yong
October 6, 2015 Updated: October 6, 2015

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.

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*Image of “Tu Youyou” via AFP/Getty Images and “maternal malaria” and “Sweet wormwood” via Wikimedia Commons


Ed Yong