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Malaria treatment hope

9th June 2008

The first drug produced to fight malaria using a brand new technique called "synthetic biology" is currently in development.

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It could save the lives of more than a million children who die each year from the mosquito-borne disease.

Based on an ancient Chinese herbal remedy first used more than 2,000 years ago, the drug is made by growing genetically engineered microbes with implanted artificial chromosomes, or gene "cassettes", in giant fermenting vats.

Based on extracts from the Chinese plant Artemesia annua, or sweet wormwood, the drug could treat everyone infected with malaria in the world within two years at a 10th of the cost of existing drugs.

Made in a bioreactor the size of a three-storey town house, the drug is a synthetically produced form of artemisinin, is which is known to have been used in China as a remedy for malaria fever since at least the second century BC.

Currently, artemisinin must be laboriously extracted it from the dried leaves and flowers of the sweet wormwood. This results in a price tag - US$2 per course of treatment - that the majority of people with malaria can ill afford.

Malaria kills between one and three million people every year, 90% of them children under five.

The new method of making the drug involves inserting about a dozen synthetic genes into yeast cells, which are then grown by fermenting them with sugar.

The technique also makes it possible to change the biological structure of the drug in future in case arteminisin-resistant strains of the malaria parasite develop.

The price of treatment may work out at less than 20 US cents a course, far cheaper than anything on the market today.

The low price and widespread availability of the semi-synthetic drug will directly help millions of sufferers, as well as undermining the counterfeit market in artemisinin, which increases the risk of drug resistance, experts say.

Professor Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, said the drug was designed to be affordable and available to people who need it. He told a synthetic biology conference in London that the process was similar to brewing beer.

Research funding included a US$42.6m research grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It will be taken into industrial production with the help of the French company sanofi aventis.

The company plans to build a 50,000-100,000-litre bioreactor in Europe by 2010.

Speculation in wild plant stocks has driven the price of artemesia annua up four-fold in recent years after the World Health Organisation (WHO) endorsed the drug as the treatment of choice. WHO has since warned against artemisinin-based monotherapies, which can lead to resistance.

Used in combination therapies, artemisinin is 100% effective in curing malaria.

 

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