Jay Keasling a professor of chemical engineering at UC Berkeley will finally see his breakthrough mass-produced.  On April 10 the pharmaceutical company Sanofi will produce a partially synthetic version of artemisinin, a chemical critical to making today’s front-line antimalarial drug based on the scientist’s discovery. This new synthetic artemisinin is the first of its kind and could potentially save the lives of the hundreds of millions of people in developing countries who contract malaria each year. Already, 650,000 people, most of them children, die of the disease annually.

Over the centuries, sweet wormwood can be traced back to Ancient Chinese time as a treatment for malaria. The active ingredient in sweet wormwood, artemisinin, was rediscovered in the 1970’s and used commercially to treat malaria. Since then, a combination of chemicals and drugs have been used to treat malaria called ACT (Artemisinin Combination Therapy). In 2005 the World Health Organization declared ACT as the most effective malaria treatment available. Consequentially, demand for artemisinin has increased dramatically.

Today sweet wormwood is grown in Southeast Asia, China and Africa, and the quality, supply and cost of the extract varies greatly. By synthetically creating the chemical, Keasling hopes to reduce the use of such a resource as well as stabilize the quality and quantities of artemisinin in anti-malaria drugs in circulation today. Keasling also hopes that synthetic artemisinin will result in lowering costs to help get the life saving medicine to the people that need it the most.

-Kira Maixner

SourceUC Berkeley News Center