Increased Production of Powerful Malaria Drug Artemisinin Could Lower Number of Deaths

First Posted: Apr 11, 2013 11:59 AM EDT

Researchers are making some amazing breakthroughs to combat malaria.

Scientists from California described Wednesday a new method that can be mass produced and is a key ingredient for the herbal drug artemisinin, the most powerful antimalarial on the market. The French drug maker Sanofi is increasing production at a plant in Italy to manufacture the ingredient and the drug.

Many believe that this new method of producing the drug could not only help create a more stable supple of medicine for malaria, but lower the number of those afflicted.

Until now, artemisinin has only been available commercially as an extract of the relatively scarce sweet wormwood plant. As global demand for the drug has climbed in the past decade, the price of that extract has been highly erratic.

"It's the volatility that really makes the supply chain for this life-saving drug just a complete train wreck," said Jack Newman, chief scientific officer of the California-based biotech firm Amyris, according to NPR.

In collaboration with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Amyris came up with a new way to synthesize artemisinin in a lab and then grow large quantities of it in yeast. It wasn't easy.

"When we first started talking about this," Newman said, "we gave it 1,000 to 1 odds of ever working."

However, it did. Using a biochemical process worked out by Amyris. Fifty to 60 tons of the substance is now expected to be made each year.

As Malaria remains a huge health problem across the globe, affecting nearly 200 million people a year in mainly Asia and Africa, researchers hope these advances can lower those numbers through more accessible treatments.

More information regarding the drug process can be found in the journal Nature

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