Synthetic biology research leads to new source for malaria drug

An endeavor twelve years in the making, University of California, Berkeley researchers are celebrating a breakthrough in synthetic biology and malaria treatment. A research team led by chemical engineer Jay Keasling began with a straightforward—though not easy—goal of genetically reprogramming a simple single celled organism, yeast, so that it would produce a chemical compound normally only found in the sweet wormwood plant. This compound is the starting material for one of the most effective anti-malaria medications available on the market. Yet, because the compound was derived from a plant that grows in select areas around the world, the availability and price were inconsistent.

Keasling’s work, carried on by a small biotech company, successfully inserted genes from both plants and bacteria into genetically engineered yeast to produce the naturally occurring compound in large enough amounts to catch the attention of global pharmaceutical company Sanofi, a Research!America member. Support from UC Berkeley led to a non-royalty license agreement with Sanofi to use the supercharged yeast as source material for semi-synthetic production of this malaria medication. Last week, Sanofi officially launched large scale production of the compound and plans to sell the resulting malaria medication at-cost to ensure availability of the medication in the developing nations where it is needed most.

Malaria affects 300-500 million people every year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that children make up 86% of deaths due to malaria infection worldwide. The recent breakthrough in malaria research not only gives hope to these children, but is also an inspiring example of cross-sector collaboration at its best: bringing together a basic science lab, a biotechnology company and a commercial partner to improve human health worldwide. Learn more about global health issues on our website and read the full press release from UC Berkeley, a Research!America member, here.

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One response

  1. Artememisin-producing yeast has been a lengthy wait for Dr Keasling. Congrats.

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