The Power of Hard Work
With a proven medication in hand, it was now time for human trials. Unfortunately, there were no centers in China performing trials for new drugs at the time. And due to the secrecy of the project, going to a facility outside of the country was out of the question.
They had reached a dead end.
That’s when Tu volunteered to be the first human subject to try the medication. In one of the boldest moves in the history of medical science, she and two other members of Project 523 infected themselves with malaria and received the first doses of their new drug.
However, despite her discovery of a breakthrough medication and her willingness to put her own life on the line, Tu was prevented from sharing her findings with the outside world. The Chinese government had strict rules that blocked the publishing of any scientific information.
She was undeterred. Tu continued her research, eventually learning the chemical structure of the drug—a compound officially known as artemisinin—and going on to develop a second antimalarial medication as well.
It was not until 1978, almost a decade after she began and three years after the Vietnam War had ended, that Tu’s work was finally released to the outside world. She would have to wait until the year 2000 before the World Health Organization would recommend the treatment as a defense against malaria.
Today, the artemisinin treatment has been administered over 1 billion times to malaria patients. It is believed to have saved millions of lives. Tu Youyou is the first female Chinese citizen to receive a Nobel Prize, and the first Chinese person to receive the Lasker Award for major contributions to medical science.