The season of giving is upon us again, the time when those fortunate enough to have a surplus come under a barrage of guilt-unducing images meant to part them with a teeny weeny bit of their cash reserve and every cause is a good one fully deserving of support. There is one nagging question though, now that the West has exposed itself to a full commitment to re-colonise the continent of Africa by any means necessary.
Didn’t anyone inform the tropical disease focused charities that China cured Malaria by the mid 1980s or is this whole kaboodle a marketing ploy devised by mosquito net manufacturers et al? Evicting parasites from the human body was first successfully accomplished in China around 1700 years ago and modern day research has been published extensively but somehow, everyone seems to have forgotten all about it. There have been others too, talented amateurs that stumbled on healing concoctions but they’re normally sidelined by mainstream TV hocus pocus or hounded to death.
Neither Big Pharma nor the charitable institutions are interested in quick or wholesale eradication, there are jobs and careers at stake and then there’s the tax write-off and all the associated perks for sunshine philanthropists. An ideal solution for them would be an effective vaccine funded by Western taxpayers that they could sell on widely for mega-profits in future. The clues are there for all to see, there’s no mention of a cure;
In other words, it’s all about the destination, not the journey. Should the next suffering millions be treated with Artemisinin tomorrow, God only knows how many handsomely paid do-gooders would be sacked, competing with our stagnant workforce for jobs that don’t exist. It’s a lucky break then that scientists are changing the physiognomy of the GM mosquito to breed itself out of existence and stop Dengue Fever, which is a whole other bucket of worms, it’s emergence in previously un-effected zones too convenient.
More than 40 years ago, amidst the upheaval and turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in China, and against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, hundreds of Chinese scientists embarked on an ambitious effort to find a drug that would conquer drug-resistant malaria. The result was the discovery of artemisinin, a compound found in plants, which, with its derivatives, is now widely used around the world to treat the disease.
This year, a highly prestigious Lasker Award went to Youyou Tu, an 81-year-old Chinese scientist who played a key part in that discovery.
Prof. Tu had led a team that “transformed an ancient Chinese healing method into the most powerful antimalarial medicine currently available,” observed the U.S.-based Lasker Foundation when they recognised her work with the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. Millions of lives across the globe, especially in the developing world, had been saved as a result, they pointed out.
In the midst of the Vietnam war, another desperate battle was being fought against Plasmodium falciparum, the most deadly of the malaria-causing parasites which had become resistant to the drug chloroquine. The U.S. came up with another drug to clear the parasite from the body — mefloquine. North Vietnam, for its part, appealed to China for help in fighting this disease.
In response, on instructions from Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, the Chinese government organised a meeting in Beijing on May 23, 1967 to discuss the problem. A secret nationwide programme, known as project 523, was then launched, involving over 500 scientists from about 60 different laboratories, write Louis H. Miller and Xinzhuan Su of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in a recent article in the journal Cell.
As the work was considered a military secret, no communication about the research to the outside world was allowed. Besides, during the tumult of the Cultural Revolution, publication in scientific journals was forbidden. Although information flowed freely within the group, no one outside the project knew anything about it at the time, they noted.
Prof. Tu was then a principal investigator at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences (CACMS) at Beijing.
“My institute quickly became involved in the project and appointed me to be the head of a malaria research group,” she reminisced in a commentary published recently by the journal Nature Medicine. “Our group of young investigators started working on the extraction and isolation of constituents with possible antimalarial activities from Chinese herbal materials.”
Prof. Tu and her colleagues began by scouring the literature on traditional Chinese medicine, scrutinising ancient texts and folk remedies. They investigated more than 2,000 Chinese herbal preparations, of which 640 appeared promising. Of these, some 380 extracts involving about 200 herbs were chosen for testing in mice. Unfortunately, “progress was not smooth, and no significant results emerged easily,” she writes in her article.
The turning point came when an extract from a plant known to the Chinese as Qinghao (Artemisia annua or sweet wormwood) “showed a promising degree of inhibition against parasite growth.”
But subsequent experiments came up with much lower levels of inhibition. Prof. Tu came to the conclusion that this could be due to problems in extracting the active ingredient. She found a clue in an ancient Chinese text, The Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergency Treatments by Ge Hong, that goes back some 1,700 years.
The text recommended soaking Qinghao in water, then wringing out the juice and drinking it. “This sentence gave me the idea that the heating involved in the conventional extraction step we had used might have destroyed the active components, and that extraction at a lower temperature might be necessary to preserve antimalarial activity,” according to Prof. Tu. Consequently, they switched to a lower-temperature extraction method.
Even so, as Dr. Miller and Dr. Su narrate in their paper, the extract was still toxic. That problem was taken care of by purifying the extract to remove an acidic portion that had no anti-malarial activity. The remaining neutral extract, given the label ‘extract number 191,’ could completely clear the parasites when tested in mice and monkeys.
Prof. Tu presented the work at a project 523 meeting at Nanjing in March 1972. That same year, her group identified “a colorless, crystalline substance” as the active chemical compound. They called it Qinghaosu, which means the ‘basic element’ in Qinghao. The world would come to know it as artemisinin.