Q: How did you join the army? A: I was born in a poor family in 1929 in Shandong . My parents farmed a little plot of land leased from a landlord. I joined the People's Liberation Army at 16 and I served during the War of Liberation as a nurse, the head of a nursing squad, assistant doctor, and then doctor-in-charge. I helped on several major battlefields and, after marching with the army to cross the Yangtze River, settled in Zhejiang province in 1949, which was then a frontier for the next step of liberating Taiwan. I worked as a doctor in a local military hospital until 1954. Why did you then turn to medical research? One thing that had kept me restless was that I had never had a formal education. I barely graduated from primary school and most classes were held in the woods to hide from the Japanese army. Neither did I have medical training. In the years I worked as a doctor, there were so many patients who begged me to save them but ... I could not help. I swore I would improve myself through education. I was enrolled at the Shanghai No2 Military Medical University at the age of 26. Before I graduated, I was appointed by an anti-biological warfare department to go to the Soviet Union to study viruses and bacteria. I was not happy for a long while. All I had wanted was to be a good doctor but all I was dealing with was tiny bugs. But as a military man it was my mission to obey, so I left for Leningrad for four years of study. How did you get involved in the mission to develop anti-malarial medicine? That story has to start from the Vietnam war. The United States bombed North Vietnam so intensely that it destroyed almost all key strongholds and cut off supplies between the south and the north. The only way to maintain supplies was through virgin forest, what we now call the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But it was a deadly trail because mosquitoes passed on the lethal falciparum malaria to the soldiers. The Vietcong once sent a regiment of more than 1,200 along the trail and only one-10th could still fight after the month-long slog. They had a saying: 'We fear no American imperialists, only malaria.' Quinine was the most frequently used anti-malarial then but an embargo meant only a small amount could be bought with gold on the black market in Hong Kong at enormously high prices. So we were left with the only option of developing new therapies ourselves. The research was a military project at first and naturally I got involved in this task in 1964. You went to the frontlines of the Vietnam war yourself. Can you talk about that? [In 1964] I was ordered to lead a group of military experts in biology, zoology, epidemiology and so on to the Vietnamese battlefields to do field studies. We went to the eastern front from Guangxi and stayed more than 40 days. There was bombing almost every day, but nothing ever hit my head. After getting back to China, we took three years to come up with three different therapies named 'Prevention 1, 2 and 3', which were combination therapies based on medicines such as dapsone. But these were for emergency use and we needed to find a more effective medicine to replace the traditional ones to which the parasite had become resistant. So is that how you came across artemisinin? How was that found? On May 23, 1967, under orders endorsed by then-premier Zhou Enlai , a pan-military and civil panel was established to mobilise more than 1,000 specialists to create a new anti-malarial drug. It was a top-secret plan known as Project 523. The experts were put into three groups: the first was to use the laboratories of western science to devise new medicines. Another was assigned to examine traditional Chinese medicines (TCM). The third group scoured the nation to collect folk remedies. Almost all the best experts participated in the project. It was very hard time for these scientists because by then the Cultural Revolution had started and most were persecuted. In many cases, we had to 'borrow' them for a few days from the hands of the Red Guards or armed factions. They were very glad to join the project too. The TCM group wrote a list more than 2 metres long of all the herbs recorded in classic TCM works that fought malaria, fever and other symptoms. Experts from the first group helped them conduct experiments and clinical tests. After many failures, we finally narrowed the field down in 1971 to sweet wormwood, a wild plant used since the Ming dynasty to treat fever. It took five years of experiments by many groups across the nation to determine the pharmacology and molecular formula of artemisinin, the active compound in sweet wormwood. In 1981, Shanghai scientists derived the more potent artemether from artemisinin. Both artemisinin and artemether cannot stay in the body long enough for the parasite to become resistant, overcoming the main problem with anti-malarials. To prolong its effectiveness, I came up with the idea in 1987 of combining it with another drug developed by our western medical group, a less potent but longer-lasting medicine called lumefantrine. This artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) was completed in 1990 and taken to Africa on a small scale through commercial channels. It proved effective and the bacteria did not develop resistance. How did ACT come onto the international stage? By the time ACT came out, the Vietnam war had ended. And because malaria is a tropical disease it was either limited to some areas of China or not prevalent at all in other areas. It did not generate much attention in China and I was very aware that if we left it alone, it would die without a market. But it was a very complex process to introduce it to the world. The fact is because it was invented in a developing country, many aspects such as the scale of clinical testing and the refinement of the medicinal compound failed to meet internationally acknowledged criteria. But after we finally met the international standards, there was no way for us to take it further. I was so frustrated: I had such good medicine at hand and I knew there were millions of people dying of malaria in the world, but how come we just could not help them? From the late 1980s, I started lobbying government departments to promote it because it was too great and too complicated for us, a few scientists, to do alone. It was the result of military research so I had to go through the intelligence agency, the military system, my academy and so on. Fortunately, we got support from several heavyweights, including Madam Deng Nan , daughter of Deng Xiaoping and then deputy director of the National Science and Technology Commission. We also got help from Citic chairman Wang Jun , from the National Patent Bureau, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Commerce. Meanwhile, we needed an influential foreign partner. Without one, we could not even protect our own patent. In 1994, after years of negotiation and co-operation, we finally signed a contract with Swedish pharmaceutical company Novartis. Unlike some other negotiators, Novartis acknowledged our contribution, and printed 'PRC' on each package of the final product, called Coartem. Looking back, you must be very proud of what you have achieved. Seriously, no because this therapy is not what 'I' achieved. The credit goes to the country and all the thousands of scientists, researchers, officials and companies, each of whom contributed to the great project over 40-plus years.