Researchers in Canada and the United States say they have developed a new process to more quickly and cheaply produce a chemical known to be an effective treatment for malaria, a disease that kills nearly one million people each year.
They figured out how to make artemisinin, the main ingredient in some malaria medications, using yeast, genes, and fermentation – a process they believe will be more reliable and efficient than extracting it from sweet wormwood, the traditional method. Sweet wormwood grows naturally in Asia, and Africa, but growing the plants and extracting artemisinin is difficult. Researchers started identifying genes in the plants that produce the chemical, and then used those genes in yeast, to create artemisinin separately in a lab. They say their yeast production strategy doubles the production of artemisinin, and is faster. (Growing sweet wormwood can lead to shortages of the malaria drug as its production cycle can be over one year).
Initially the researchers were granted forty million dollars in 2004 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start the project. Another grant of just over ten million dollars was given to finish the very helpful work, and the for-profit company sanofi-aventis will help produce and distribute the new drugs for free in Africa.
“This new development in the production of a malaria treatment represents a major development in the fight against the disease. It will strengthen Canada’s position as a world leader in health research and provide a reliable and affordable solution,” said Canada’s Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology. (Source: thestarphoenix.com)
Currently ninety percent of new malaria cases occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Malaria is a leading cause of death for children under the age of five. Even children who survive malaria may experience brain damage and anemia, which of course can limit their educational and economic opportunities as they mature. Research has also shown countries severely effected by malaria are held back economically compared with countries that are malaria-free, so one can easily say the disease’s impact is profound and touches many levels of a society.
The discovery resulted from a collaboration named The Artemisinin Project, a public-private partnership led by OneWorld Health in cooperation with sanofi-aventis, Amyris, the University of California at Berkeley, and the Canadian government.
Image Credit: Magnus Manske