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Malaria drug breakthrough could slash costs

31st January 2012

Researchers have developed a new way of producing the life-saving malarial drug arteminisin, using a waste product from the current extraction process.


The new method could lower the cost of artemisinin, which is derived from the traditional Chinese medicinal herb Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, by as much as a third.

Currently, artemisinin is recommended in combination therapies for the front-line treatment of malara by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and global supplies are perennially short.

The German research team based their new method on the fact that the extraction process produces around 10 times as much artemisinic acid as it does artemisinin.

However, artemisinic acid is not easily converted into artemisinin, and the research team drew on techniques from continuous flow chemistry, which is currently used in the petrochemical industry.

Passing chemicals down a tube in a constant state of flow increases reaction times, efficiency and safety, compared with mixing them together in a single container.

Study co-author Peter Seeberger, director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, said his team had already spent 10 years adapting the use of flow chemistry to the production of pharmaceuticals.

Writing in the German-language journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition, the team said the result technique was a totally different way of thinking about artemisinin synthesis.

The technique can produced around 200 grammes of artemisinin per day from a single chemical reactor about the size of a domestic refrigerator, Seeberger said.

If the project were scaled up to the level of 400 reactors running simultaneously, it could produce enough of the chemical to supply the whole world, and cut the cost of the drug by as much as one third.

Chemistry experts called the research a huge advance.

According to Bristol University chemist Kevin Booker-Millburn, commercialisation of the new process could significantly lower the cost of artemisinin.

The new method would have obvious benefits for many of the poorest nations of the world where malaria is endemic, he said.

London-based malaria expert Colin Sutherland said cheaper drug supplies could also help tackle the current problems of drug counterfeits by squeezing the profits made by counterfeiters.

Experts say that the low levels of active ingredients found in fake malaria combination therapies could actually contribute to resistance in the population, making the killer disease harder and harder to treat.

Some counterfeit malaria drugs contain potentially toxic ingredients, including banned pharmaceuticals and even the raw material for making ecstasy.

Seeberger said that large-scale production could start later this year, if the project finds commercial partners.

More than a million people die of malaria every year around the world.

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