Rethinking Healthcare

Cheap malaria drug made from waste product

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Researchers have found a simpler way to synthesize the antimalarial drug artemisinin. Using throwaway parts, the method promises to produce larger life-saving amounts, inexpensively.

Researchers have found a better way to synthesize artemisinin – a crucial drug in the global fight against malaria – by utilizing an unused throwaway byproduct.

According to the World Health Organization, 655,000 people die of malaria a year, and while there IS a cure, the supply chain to make artemisinin has been a huge problem. ScienceNOW reports.

Artemisinin is naturally produced by a plant called sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua, the same genus as the doomsday poison in this season’s Dexter), which has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. Since 2001, WHO has recommended life-saving ‘artemisinin-based combination therapies’ (ACTs) replace older drugs worldwide.

But synthesizing artemisinin from scratch is expensive and difficult, and the plant holds only a tiny fraction of artemisinin: between 0.001% and 0.8%.

As a result, ACTs cost between $1 and $2 per treatment course – and poorer patients often end up choosing cheaper but less effective antimalarial alternatives. A recent study showed that fake or weakened artemisinin were found in 11 countries in Africa.

But sweet wormwood also produces a related molecule, artemisinic acid. During the extraction of 1 kg of artemisinin, as much as 10 kg of artemisinic acid is produced… but it’s usually thrown away since its conversion into artemisinin is not cost-effective.

BUT NOW a team led by Peter Seeberger at the Max Planck Institute may have conquered that problem. “The production of the drug is therefore no longer dependent on obtaining the active ingredient from plants,” he says.

The details of their methods sound pretty complicated, and they’re delineated nicely in ScienceNOW. They involve oxygen and light in a process called photochemistry, but the cool part is: the yield after purification is about 40%.

"The whole reaction takes 4½ minutes, and we can now produce 800 grams of artemisinin a day with this little machine," Seeberger says of the suitcase-sized prototype of the reaction system.

In 3 months, they want to be able to produce 2 kilograms a day. The synthesis process could be ready for technical use in 6 months. "We assume that 800 of our simple photoreactors would suffice to cover the global requirement," Seeberger adds.

The first reactor cost $60,000 to produce, but a new one would cost only $12,000, and the price could come down to $10,000. Seeberger has patented the technology will start talking to pharmaceutical companies.

The work was published in Angewandte Chemie this week.

Via ScienceNOW, Max-Plank release

Image by RollBackMalaria via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure