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New way to make malaria medicine also first step in finding new antibiotics

University of Illinois microbiology professor William Metcalf and his collaborators have developed a way to mass-produce an antimalarial compound, potentially making the treatment of malaria less expensive.

Metcalf set out to understand how this compound, one of a group known as phosphonates, is made in nature by bacteria. He was interested in that process partly because some phosphonates have antibiotic properties. Recently, Metcalf and his lab successfully identified and sequenced the genes and identified the processes by which bacteria make this particular phosphonate compound (FR900098).

His results are reported in the August 25 issue of Chemistry & Biology.

Although the compound has already been chemically synthesized, that is a costly process. By knowing how this phosphonate is biosynthesized, it can now be inexpensively mass-produced by harnessing the cellular machinery of bacteria.

"Malaria is a problem in Third World countries that can least afford expensive medicines, and many antibiotics are expensive," Metcalf said.

Efforts are already underway by Metcalf's colleague, chemical engineering professor Huimin Zhao, to engineer E. coli strains to overproduce FR900098, which can then be harvested for medicine.

In addition, says Metcalf, knowing the genes and understanding the pathway that bacteria use to make this antimalarial means the genes can be manipulated to make the compound even more effective against the malaria parasite while remaining harmless to people.

This effort to help treat malaria is just one facet of a major undertaking to find new antibiotics. Last year Metcalf and his colleagues at the U. of I.'s Institute for Genomic Biology, chemistry professor Wilfred van der Donk, Zhao, chemistry professor Neil Kelleher, and biochemistry professor Satish Nair, received a $7.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate just this. Jo Ha

Contact: Melissa Edwards
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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