A Berkeley scientist, an Albany biotechnology startup and a unique San Francisco nonprofit drug company will announce today they have received a $43 million grant to develop a cheaper version of a Chinese herbal drug that is considered the most effective cure for malaria.
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle will provide the money to speed the development of a genetically engineered form of artemisinin, an herbal medicine derived from the dried leaves of the wormwood plant. Artemisinin, which has been used in China to treat fevers since A.D. 150, came into vogue as a modern malaria treatment after studies in Vietnam showed it reduced deaths from the illness by 97 percent.
A parasitic blood disease responsible for 1.5 million deaths each year, malaria strikes up to 500 million annually and has grown increasingly resistant to a variety of medicines that have been used to control it. The World Health Organization now recognizes that drugs combining antibiotics with the herbal extract provide the most rapid defense against malaria and are the only ones to which the parasite has not developed resistance.
A three-day course of drugs containing artemisinin can cure malaria for about $2.40 — inexpensive by Western standards, but out of reach in many of the Asian and African nations where the disease is taking its biggest toll.
Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley chemical engineering professor, is working to produce artemisinin for one-tenth the current cost. With a team of scientists, he has developed during the past 10 years a process he calls “synthetic biology,” the use of genetically engineered bacteria to churn out chemical compounds.
Unlike modern biotechnology drugs such as insulin, which require the transfer of a single gene into a bacterium, it will take 12 genes from the wormwood plant to coax the chemical out of modified E. coli strains in his lab, Keasling said.
“It is a 12-step process, and we have gotten to No. 9,” he said. “If we get to 10, we can start making it.” Part of the Gates Foundation money will be used to put Keasling’s research over the top. Amyris Biotechnologies, an Albany company set up by several of Keasling’s former students, will share the grant, developing a system to bring the laboratory techniques up to an industrial scale.
A third partner in the program is the Institute for OneWorld Health, a San Francisco firm that will shepherd the drug through clinical trials and the Food and Drug Administration approval process. The first nonprofit pharmaceutical firm in the United States, OneWorld was founded in July 2000 by UCSF-trained pharmaceutical chemist Victoria Hale. It is already using a Gates Foundation grant to develop a low-cost treatment for visceral leishmaniasis, a potentially fatal parasitic infection transmitted by the sandfly.
“We think this malaria project is fantastic,” Hale said. “We are elated.” Currently, artemisinin production relies on a network of farmers in Vietnam and China who raise wormwood during an eight-month crop cycle. Shortages of the plant help keep the price of the drug high. Hale acknowledged that industrial production of a genetically engineered drug eventually will hurt the farmers who grow the crops today.
“The farmers will be less competitive, but we came to the conclusion that the benefits for the continent of Africa in having a very affordable and effective malaria cure outweighs the effects on farmers,” she said. Dr. Regina Rabinovich, director of infectious diseases at the Gates Foundation, said that the artemisinin program demonstrates “an extraordinary partnership” between public and private institutions. “I hope that UC Berkeley’s participation will serve as a model for other academic institutions,” she said.
Source: "The National Non-Food Crops Centre" [www.nnfcc.co.uk], press release of 2004-12-14.