The Story of Project 523
In 1969, during the fourteenth year of the Vietnam War, a Chinese scientist named Tu Youyou was appointed the head of a secret research group in Beijing. The unit was known only by its code name: Project 523.
China was an ally with Vietnam, and Project 523 had been created to develop antimalarial medications that could be administered to the soldiers. The disease had become a huge problem. Just as many Vietnamese soldiers were dying from malaria in the jungle as were dying in battle.
Tu began her work by looking for clues anywhere she could find them. She read manuals about old folk remedies. She searched through ancient texts that were hundreds or thousands of years old. She traveled to remote regions in search of plants that might contain a cure.
After months of work, her team had collected over 600 plants and created a list of almost 2,000 possible remedies. Slowly and methodically, Tu narrowed the list of potential medications down to 380 and tested them one-by-one on lab mice.
“This was the most challenging stage of the project,” she said. “It was a very laborious and tedious job, in particular when you faced one failure after another.”
Hundreds of tests were run. Most of them yielded nothing. But one test—an extract from the sweet wormwood plant known as qinghao—seemed promising. Tu was excited by the possibility, but despite her best efforts, the plant would only occasionally produce a powerful antimalarial medication. It wouldn’t always work.
Her team had already been at work for two years, but she decided they needed to start again from the beginning. Tu reviewed every test and re-read each book, searching for a clue about something she missed. Then, magically, she stumbled on a single sentence in The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies, an ancient Chinese text written over 1,500 years ago.
The issue was heat. If the temperature was too high during the extraction process, the active ingredient in the sweet wormwood plant would be destroyed. Tu redesigned the experiment using solvents with a lower boiling point and, finally, she had an antimalarial medication that worked 100 percent of the time.
It was a huge breakthrough, but the real work was just beginning.