Researchers in California described Wednesday their new method for mass-producing the key ingredient for the herbal drug artemisinin, the most powerful antimalarial on the market. Already, the French drugmaker Sanofi is ramping up production at a plant in Italy to manufacture the ingredient and the drug.
Global health advocates say they expect this new method of producing artemisinin will at last provide a stable supply of the drug and cut the overall cost of malaria treatment.
Up 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. Between 2003 and 2004, the price of the compound jumped from just over $100 a pound to almost $550. By 2007, artemisinin prices had crashed. Then, two years later, prices almost doubled.
"It's the volatility that really makes the supply chain for this life-saving drug just a complete train wreck," says Jack Newman, chief scientific officer of the California-based biotech firm Amyris. 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 says, "we gave it 1,000 to 1 odds of ever working."
Now, using the biochemical process worked out by Amyris (and described Wednesday in the journal Nature), Sanofi is expected to make 50 to 60 tons of the substance a year — enough to meet roughly a third of global demand.
Malaria remains one of the biggest health problems on the planet, afflicting nearly 200 million people a year and causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, mainly in Africa and Asia. Over the past decade, the overall number of malaria cases has finally started to come down, in large part because of the increasing use of powerful artemisinin-based drugs.
The effort to get synthetic artemisinin from concept to the lab to market has been overseen by the Seattle-based global health nonprofit PATH (which stands for Program for Appropriate Technology in Health).
Ponni Subbiah, of the PATH subsidiary OneWorld Health, says the project's goal was to stabilize the price of artemisinin and ensure a stable supply of these important malaria medications.
"Having an alternative source [of artemisinin] to complement the botanical source is really critical so that more people can access the treatment," she says.
Subbiah says she also hopes that this model of a global collaboration between academics, private biotech firms, nonprofits and commercial drugmakers can bear fruit against other diseases in the developing world.
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There's a big step forward in the fight against malaria. Researchers in California have come up with a way to reproduce a key ingredient in the most common anti-malaria medicine. And a French drug maker is already at work on a new plant to manufacturer it.
As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, this advance is expected to produce a more stable market for malaria medicine and to cut the overall cost of treatment.
JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Malaria remains one of the biggest health problems on the planet. It affects nearly 200 million people a year and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths, mainly in Africa and Asia.
The good news on malaria, however, is that over the last decade the overall number of cases has been going down. This drop is directly related to the introduction and widespread use of artemisinin-based malaria drugs. The problem has been that artemisinin is derived sweet wormwood and there hasn't been enough of this bushy plant to meet demand.
Between 2003 and 2004, the price of artemisinin jumped from just over a hundred dollars a pound to almost $550. By 2007, artemisinin prices had crashed. Then two years later, prices almost doubled.
JACK NEWMAN: It's the volatility that really, you know, makes the supply chain for this life saving drug, you know, just a complete train wreck.
BEAUBIEN: Jack Newman is the chief scientific officer at Amyris, a bio-tech firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. In collaboration with researchers at UC Berkeley, Newman's company figured out how to synthesize a precursor to artemisinin in the lab and then grow large quantities of it on yeast.
Activists from PATH, a global health non-profit, shepherded the project forward. And this week, a French pharmaceutical company is holding a ribbon cutting for a new factory to produce synthetic artemisinin by the ton.
Ponni Subbiah with PATH says that by next year, the factory is expected to be manufacturing enough artemisinin to meet roughly a third of global demand.
PONNI SUBBIAH: The goal of this project from the outset was to really stabilize the prices and ensure a stable supply.
BEAUBIEN: That stability, she predicts, will eventually help drive down the cost of malaria drugs.
Subbiah says she also hopes that this model of a collaboration between academics, private bio-tech firms, non-profits, and commercial drug-makers can bear fruit against other diseases in the developing world.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.