Max Planck Institute breakthrough could speed artemisinin drug creation

German scientists at the Max Planck Institute published a paper this month on their method to take the waste product from creating the malaria drug artemisinin and convert it into the drug itself.

Artemisinin is a key malaria drug extracted from the sweet wormwood plant. The chemists created a machine that can convert approximately 40 percent of the waste acid, artemisinic acid, into artemisinin. The study was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the Associated Press reports.

The technique converts four times more of the drug from what had previously been discarded. The apparatus is about the size of a carry-on suitcase. Its low cost means it could be added to production sites worldwide.

"Four hundred of these would be enough to make a world supply of artemisinin," Peter Seeberger, the unit director, said, according to the Associated Press. "The beauty of these things is they're very small and very mobile."

Colin Sutherland, a malaria expert who was not involved in the research, said that the development could make a significant impact in the production of the malaria drug. He said that currently only a little artemisinin can be made from a large quantity of sweet wormwood, which is tough to grow.

"If it's a simple process, given a certain amount of plant material, you can generate more drugs, that will make things cheaper and faster," Sutherland said, according to the Associated Press.

A commercial prototype of the machine will be ready in approximately six months and could go into production in about a year. While artemisinin therapies are considered the best treatment against the deadly disease, the cost of $10 per dose is too much for impoverished communities. Increasing production and cutting costs could make a major impact.

"Many times more children will have access to the right drug early in their disease and that's likely to have an impact on mortality," Sutherland said, according to the Associated Press.