Washington: The pharmaceutical company Sanofi has launched the large-scale production of a partially synthetic version of artemisinin, a chemical critical to making today`s front-line antimalaria drug, based on a breakthrough discovery made twelve years ago.
And Professor of chemical engineering Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, laboratory, is seeing his dream finally come true.
The drug is the first triumph of the nascent field of synthetic biology and will be, Keasling hopes, a lifesaver for the hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who each year contract malaria and more than 650,000, most of them children, who die of the disease.
Synthetic biology involves inserting a dozen or more genes into microbes to make them produce drugs, chemicals or biofuels that they normally would not.
Keasling and colleagues at Amyris, a company he cofounded in 2003 to bring the lab-bench discovery to the marketplace, will publish in the April 25 issue of Nature the sequence of genes they introduced into yeast that allowed Sanofi to make the chemical precursor of artemisinin.
The yeast strain developed by Amyris based on Keasling`s initial research and now used by Sanofi produces a chemical precursor of artemisinin, a compound that until now has been extracted from the sweet wormwood plant, Artemsia annua.
Artemisinin from either sweet wormwood or the engineered yeast is then turned into the active antimalarial drug artesunate, and typically mixed with another antimalarial drug in what is called arteminsinin combination therapy, or ACT.
Global demand for artemisinin has increased since 2005, when the World Health Organization identified ACTs as the most effective malaria treatment available.
Sanofi said that it is committed to producing semisynthetic artemisinin using a no-profit, no-loss production model, which will help to maintain a low price for developing countries.
Though the price of ACTs will vary from product to product, the new source for its key ingredient, in addition to the plant-derived supply, should lead to a stable cost and steady supply, said Keasling, who also serves as associate director for biosciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and as CEO of the Joint Bioenergy Institute in Emeryville, Calif.
Keasling encourages other companies to license for free their synthetic processes to make artemisinin in order to ensure that needed doses are available worldwide.