In addition to providing a simple and much less expensive means of making artemisinin, the most powerful anti-malaria drug in use today, synthetic biology can also help to extend the effectiveness of this drug. Fermenting artemisinin via engineered microbes, such as yeast, can be done at far lower costs than extracting the drug from Artemsisia annua, the sweet wormwood tree, making microbial-based artemisinin a much cheaper but equally effective treatment. Restricting access to this technology to responsible manufacturers who will bundle artemisinin as part of an anti-malarial drug "cocktail" rather than selling it as a monotherapy should delay or even prevent malaria parasites from developing resistance. Recently, there have been reports of malaria parasites in West Africa showing some signs of resistance to artemisinin.
"The problem has been that some manufacturers have sold artemisinin as a monotherapy rather than as a co-therapy as is recommended by the World Health Organization," said Jay Keasling, a chemical engineer with joint appointments at Berkeley Lab and UC Berkeley, who led the development of this microbial-based method of producing artemisinin. "Any drug that is used as a monotherapy raises the possibility of microbes developing resistance to it. Right now artemisinin is grown by farmers all over the world and sold to anybody. Through the synthetic biology technique, access to the cheapest artemisinin can be restricted to manufacturers who agree to sell it as part of a co-therapy drug."
Keasling, who is one of the world's leading researchers in synthetic biology and CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), one of three U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Research Centers, made his remarks at a press briefing at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). At the symposium on Synthetic Life, he gave a talk entitled: Synthetic Biology in Pursuit of Low-Cost, Effective, Anti-Mala
|Contact: Lynn Yarris|
DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory