On Orders From Mao, Researchers Set Off On Nobel-Winning Drug Work : Goats and Soda In the 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong ordered scientists to find a malaria antidote to help ailing soldiers in North Vietnam. Today's Nobel Prize for medicine went to one of those researchers.
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On Orders From Mao, Researchers Set Off On Nobel-Winning Drug Work

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On Orders From Mao, Researchers Set Off On Nobel-Winning Drug Work

On Orders From Mao, Researchers Set Off On Nobel-Winning Drug Work

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We're going to hear some more about that anti-malarial drug now. As we've heard, it springs from traditional Chinese medicine. It was developed during the repressive years of China's Cultural Revolution, and it came about because of the war in Vietnam. Well, Keith Arnold was the first Western medical scientist to know about this drug, and he joins us from NPR West. Welcome to the program.

KEITH ARNOLD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, the Vietnam War, malaria and artemisinin. Tell us about the connection.

ARNOLD: Well, from the American side, we were having a problem with malaria, and we were starting then to look at mefloquine. On the other hand, the North Vietnamese were having a serious problem with malaria, and therefore, they contacted China - Mao - to ask for some help. And Mao then decided that he would support Vietnam. He sent a directive out to his scientists and so on that they should pursue the traditional medicine line, and he hoped that they would come up with something related to traditional medicine, which he was eager to promote.

SIEGEL: Now, this began in 1967, and the research continued through the years of the Cultural Revolution when Chinese scientists, like other intellectuals, were sent off to the countryside to do hard labor, to be publicly humiliated. How did this project survive during that time?

ARNOLD: Well, it survived with difficulty. All this research has - had problems. They often worked overnight and in the basement of buildings. And they were, in fact, harassed and treated very badly until the word came down that these scientists were protected by Mao.

SIEGEL: Tell me about - when you went to China in the late 1970s, how did you learn of this - what was actually a secret project?

ARNOLD: I went there to study mefloquine in comparative studies against malaria using quinine or chloroquine. When I met the appropriate scientists - there were several Chinese persons dressed in their Mao suits, and when I explained what I wanted to do, they said to me, well, we actually have a compounded drug which we think is quite good, and here's the data and information about it. And they showed that data to me. I saw the slides, and I saw the graphs of clearance and noticed that this was incredible. We had no compound comparable to this that would kill the parasites as quickly as this. So then I suggested that we use this as a comparative study, and they agreed. And then we went ahead and did the study and then published the paper The Lancet in 1982.

SIEGEL: In 1982 - I mean, I can remember as late as the late-1990s when there was litigation over the side effects of anti-malarial medication, not this. What took so long, getting this drug out there to people?

ARNOLD: Well, it gets a bit complicated. WHO did meet with the Chinese authorities in '82, '85 to try and do a collaborative research project. But both sides distrusted each other, so WHO gave up on it, had nothing to do with it for a period of time. But I continued to study research in Vietnam, mainly. The problem was that WHO would not accept any of our work and - in fact, would not let any of us use the drug because it wasn't manufactured in China according to their standards. And therefore, they ignored the use of it until it became so obvious, in the early '90s, this was a remarkable drug. And they were then obliged to actually start looking at it. But, in my view, they delayed this far too long, but it's one of those things that happened, unfortunately.

SIEGEL: You met the doctors who were doing this work in China. Dr. Tu, who was honored with the Nobel Prize, who was already honored a few years ago with the Lasker Prize, the big American prize for medicine. As I understand it, you're in the camp that says other people have been slighted by she alone being the recipient of this prize.

ARNOLD: Absolutely. And the Chinese other researchers are quite furious about this. Many of us who were basic researchers in the early years said, for example, her being named the inventor is a travesty of justice, and she should in no way receive that award. She should not have received the Lasker Award, and she certainly should not receive the Nobel Prize.

SIEGEL: That she shouldn't have received or shouldn't have received it alone, which is more accurate in your opinion?

ARNOLD: Yes, we will say that. But in fact, there are other scientists who contributed much more to the development discovery than did Tu You.

SIEGEL: Dr. Arnold, thank you very much for talking with us.

ARNOLD: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's malaria researcher Keith Arnold. He was the first Western scientist to write about the drug artemisinin. We did seek comment from the Nobel Committee about his criticisms, and we have yet to hear back.

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