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Researchers Say New Genetic Map of Malaria Drug Promises Increased Supply

Young Artemisia plants in a green house. (Centre for Novel Agricultural Projects, University of York)

Scientists have completed the first genetic map of a medicinal plant valued as the source of effective powerful anti-malaria drug. Researchers say the map should substantially increase stocks and bring down the cost of artemisinin, a drug that's currently in short supply, and in high demand, to treat malaria.

Artemisinin is cultivated from the ancient Chinese herb, Artemisia annua, to treat malaria. The parasitic disease is spread by mosquitoes and kills an estimated 900,000 people every year, mostly children.

While the parasite responsible for malaria has developed resistance to many drugs, rendering them less effective as a treatment, artemisinin remains a potent weapon. But supplies of the medication are limited because it is cultivated from seeds of a low-yielding wild plant. As a result, artemisinin costs ten times more than other anti-malarials, so it is used sparingly in combination with other drugs to boost their effectiveness.

Now, researchers at the University of York in England are using genetic technology to address the problem. They have drawn a genetic map of the annua plant that has identified traits and markers related to the production of artemisinin.

Ian Graham with York University's Center for Novel Agricultural products helped decipher the artemisinin plant's yield and quality characteristics. He says the new genetic blueprint provides a way to boost the annua plant's artemisin output. "What our work is doing is developing new high yielding varieties using this new knowledge. And that will stabilize the supply and prevent these price hikes in the drug which currently exist," he said.

Graham says scientists hope to get seeds of the higher yielding annual varieties delivered soon to farmers, including those in developing countries, to start bolstering the worldwide supply of the anti-malarial drug. By 2012, demand for artemisin is expected to rise to 200 million doses a year. "So, I think if those processes are effective, we can look forward to reducing malaria. That's what our work is contributing to," he said.

Malaria strikes an estimated 300 to 500 million people around the world each year. A malaria action plan adopted by the United Nations set a target date of 2015 for reducing the child mortality rate by two-thirds.

Will Milhaus of the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida says the possibility of increasing the global supply of artemisin is very exciting. "I think it will go a long way towards, as they described, making it into a crop, and making it economically feasible to maintain world supplies," he said.

The research study and commentary by Will Milhaus on the the new genetic map of artemisinin is published in the Journal Science.