US$ 43 million boost for synthetic malaria drug
Sweet wormwood: source of artemisinin
22 December 2004
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given US42.6 million
to a US-based non-profit pharmaceutical company to fund research
into ways of using genetically- engineered bacterium to produce
the antimalarial compound artemisinin.
Artemisinin has proved to be one of the most effective compounds
to combat malaria. But it is expensive an adult course of
artemisinin combination therapy provided through the World
Health Organization (WHO) costs US$2.40.
It is also in short supply. Indeed although the current shortage
of artemisinin was expected to end next March, the WHO announced
today (22 December) that it could extend beyond March because of
a "continued lack of raw materials".
If successful, the five-year Gates-funded project, to be carried
out by the Institute for OneWorld Health, would create a valu-
able alternative to the existing method of producing the drug,
which relies on extracting the compound from the Chinese herb
The company will collaborate with scientists at the University
of California, Berkeley to design a microbial 'factory' by ge-
netically engineering the bacterium Escherichia coli to produce
For the first three years of the project, researchers at the
university will be working with Amyris Biotechnologies to 'opti-
mise' the microbe for large-scale production. Amyris will then
develop a process for industrial fermentation and commercialisa-
The role of the Institute for OneWorld Health will be to carry
out drug development, and also to demonstrate that the artemisi-
nin produced by the bacteria is 'bioequivalent' to that ex-
tracted naturally from Chinese wormwood. This will allow drug
manufacturers to substitute the microbially-produced product for
that obtained from plants.
Jay Keasling, the professor of chemical engineering at the Uni-
versity of California who first developed the microbial facto-
ries, told SciDev.Net that the artemisinin produced by the bac-
teria is likely to be a purer form than that extracted from the
"The plan is to develop the compound just short of it being a
drug," the Institute's founder Victoria Hale told SciDev.Net.
"Our role is to make it as easy as possible for manufacturers to
switch and move into production through a comprehensive regula-
Thus, she added, "the periodic shortages of artemisinin (such as
we have now) will be much less of an issue, and the reproduci-
ble, high-quality supply will help drive down the costs."
To ensure that people in developing countries can afford the
drugs, the University of California will provide the other two
partners with royalty-free licences to develop the technology,
and Amyris will produce the drugs at cost price.
Keasling also believes these sorts of public-private partner-
ships could be "a model for attacking neglected diseases in the
developing world" (see Potential for public-private drug re-
search 'untapped'). The World Health Organization estimates that
about 300 million become infected with malaria every year, and
one million people die of the disease, a large proportion in Af-