New semi-synthetic artemisinin for fighting malaria launched

Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company, launched the large-scale production of a partially synthetic type of artemisinin on April 11.

Artemisinin is a chemical critical to making front-line antimalarial drugs. The semi-synthetic artemisinin was first developed by Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical engineering at UC Berkeley.

"[Artemisinin] is incredible," Keasling, who also serves as associate director for biosciences at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and as CEO of the Joint BioEnergy Institute in Emeryville, Calif, said. "The time scale hasn't been that long, it just seems like a long time. There were many places along the way where it could have failed."

This new drug is the first success story in the nascent field of synthetic biology. Keasling said he hopes the drug will be a lifesaver for the millions of people in developing countries who contract malaria. Over 650,000 of those who contract the disease die.

Synthetic biology involves inserting a dozen or more genes into microbes to have them produce drugs, chemicals or biofuels they normally would not create.

"With commercial production of semi-synthetic artemisinin underway, we are poised to enable a more stable flow of key antimalarial treatments to those who need them most," Ponni Subbiah, global program leader for drug development at PATH, said. "The success of this cross-sector collaboration demonstrates that, with a shared humanitarian goal and the dedication and perseverance of all partners, we can advance science to make a real impact in global health."