Gates grant funds production of genetically engineered malaria drug

Kristi Heim | 08 Jul 2010
Seattle Times
The Institute for OneWorld Health, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, said it has received $10.7 million from the Gates Foundation to begin commercial production of a key ingredient for malaria treatment.

In a partnership with drug company Sanofi-Aventis, the institute will use the Gates grant to prepare for large-scale production and commercialization of semi synthetic artemisinin by 2012.

Semi synthetic artemisinin is produced by a combination of genetic engineering and synthetic chemistry.

Artemisinin, the standard treatment recommended for malaria, is derived from artemisia, an herb found in Chinese medicine from the leaves of the wormwood tree.

While the parasite that causes the mosquito-borne disease has developed resistance to traditional drugs such as chloroquine, artemisinin in combination with other drugs is considered to be the most effective medication and credited with raising recovery rates globally.

The problem is its cost. Labor intensive extraction drives the price up and out of reach of most people in malaria prone areas such as sub-Saharan Africa.

This scientific paper describes the process, and this article offers a plain English translation of the project to use genetic engineering techniques to create microbes that can mass-produce artemisinin. (The University of Washington is also studying artemisinin's potential in cancer prevention.)

But even a more stable supply may not fully solve the problem of drug resistance when it comes to malaria. U.S. health officials say resistance to artemisinin is spreading.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned last year that parasites resistant to artemisinin had emerged along the border between Cambodia and Thailand.

The Gates Foundation gave the Institute for OneWorld Health a five-year $42.5 million grant in 2004 to establish and validate a manufacturing process to make artemisinin-type drugs more affordable.