Malaria :: Inexpensive malaria drug may soon be a reality

An inexpensive antimalarial drug may now be a reality as researchers striving to create a less expensive version of artemisinin, have cleared a major hurdle, according to a new report in the journal Nature.

Two and a half years ago, a University of California, Berkeley, team led by Jay D. Keasling, UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, succeeded in engineering bacteria to make a chemical precursor of artemisinin – the best drug available today to cure malaria.

The team’s ultimate goal was to retool the microbe’s metabolism to perform as much of the drug synthesis as possible in order to sidestep the expensive laboratory synthesis needed to make artemisinin. That synthesis would have increased the drug’s cost beyond the researchers’ ambitious target of 25 cents per dose.

They now have nearly achieved that goal by engineering the production of artemisinic acid, one chemical alteration away from artemisinin. The fact that the researchers have not yet been able to produce artemisinin itself is not a disadvantage, they said, since drugs currently on the market – all made from extracts of the wormwood plant, Artemisia annua – are synthetic derivatives of both artemisinic acid and artemisinin.

“This is probably as close to artemisinin as we are going to get in microbes. The rest is going to be done by chemistry,” said Keasling, director of the UC Berkeley Synthetic Biology Center and of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Synthetic Biology Department, and a UC Berkeley member of the California Institute of Quantitative Biomedical Research.

“While we have made a lot of progress in the past two years, there still are a lot of unknowns,” he added.

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