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Synthetic Malaria Drug Made Through Biotech, Yeast

  • Jessica Berman

A young girl with malaria rests in the inpatient ward of the Malualkon Primary Health Care Center in Malualkon, in the South Sudanese state of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, June 1, 2012.

A young girl with malaria rests in the inpatient ward of the Malualkon Primary Health Care Center in Malualkon, in the South Sudanese state of Northern Bahr el-Ghazal, June 1, 2012.

The World Health Organization says more than 200 million people - mostly in sub-Saharan Africa - were infected with malaria in 2010. The mosquito-borne parasitic illness annually kills 650,000 people, a majority of them young children.

The most effective anti-malaria treatment developed so far is artemisinin, a plant-derived drug that is expensive and often unavailable. Now, after a decade-long research effort, scientists have found a novel way to cheaply mass-produce artemisinin. The new, bio-synthetic version of the drug could be a major advance in the battle against malaria.

Whenever he travels to Africa, Jack Newman says he arrives prepared with his own supply of artemisinin.

“I always keep it in my back pocket in case I get malaria," said Newman. "Again, in three days you are cured.”

The American researcher hopes others infected with the parasitic illness might soon have easy access to the drug, too.

Newman is co-founder of Amyris, a U.S. biotechnology company that, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California Berkeley and the Canadian National Research Council, developed a process for making large quantities of a semi-synthetic version of artemisinin, offering people with uncomplicated malaria a cure in just three days.

Artemisinin is a compound that until now has been derived exclusively from an ancient, bitter herb called wormwood. It is up to 95 percent effective in curing uncomplicated malaria infections but, because it is derived from a plant, artemisinin is frequently in short supply, and expensive.

Newman and his colleagues figured out a way to make an unlimited supply of artemisinin using a technique that combines biotechnology and a simple yeast fermentation process.

He says they extracted DNA from the wormwood plant and inserted it into yeast cells …

“ fire up a big fermentation, like beer fermentation, but instead of making beer, you are actually making [an] anti-malarial drug," he said. "And you can do it in hundreds of thousands of gallons and, of course, make it in an industrial fashion, the same way we make penicillin; very, very inexpensively.”

The process yields a chemical precursor to artemisinin, which is used in the production of the drug.

The innovation was made possible in large part by grants totaling $53.3 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the drug development arm of PATH, an international non-profit group that has been leading the fight against malaria and other diseases. PATH helped move the artemisinin research out of the UC Berkeley labs to Amyris for scale-up, and then to the pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur, for production of the yeast-based artemisinin. The company says it is distributing the drug free of charge.

Sanofi also plans to share the recipe with other drug makers so they, too, can use the technology to manufacture and distribute it on a “no profit, no loss” basis, according to Amyris's Jack Newman.

“Basically, by using synthetic biology, we’ve been able to stabilize the production so there’s always material available and make it at a very low cost," he said.

Newman says the yeast-based drug is identical to plant-derived artemisinin in terms of effectiveness. It is being formulated with a second anti-malaria compound to reduce the chances of drug resistance.

So far, Newman says, Sanofi plans to make 70 million doses of what he calls malaria “cures” this year. Using synthetic biology, next year the company will scale up production to 120 million doses, which will be distributed globally pending World Health Organization approval.

Jack Newman and his colleagues describe their production of a semi-synthetic version of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin in an article published in the journal Nature.