Bay Area breakthrough could help with treating malaria


The new drug is considered the first real breakthrough in the field of synthetic biology. It's the brainchild of famed Berkeley scientist Jay Keasling, who founded the drug company Amyris to bring this key lab research to the people who desperately need it at an affordable price.

For Keasling, producing a cheap drug to combat malaria has been a decade long mission, aimed at alleviating suffering in some of the world's poorest countries.

"These are people who are living on less than dollar a day and whose governments spend about $4 a year per person per year on health care," he said.

Shortly after meeting with Keasling in 2011 ABC7 News experienced the desperate need first hand. In one of a series of reports filed from the West African nation of Sierra Leone, ABC7 News watched as dozens of infants were diagnosed with malaria.

Dr. DJ Lavaly, who's received advanced training at San Francisco General Hospital, says the disease takes an even greater toll than the trauma injuries he treats at the emergency hospital near the capital city of Freetown.

"So they are rushed in gasping and requiring urgent blood transfusions," Lavaly said.

To address that need, Keasling and his team, in partnership with One World Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, developed a synthetic form of the most commonly used malaria drug - artemisinin. Prior to their research, artemisinin had to be extracted from the wormwood plan, with the price of the drug fluctuating based on the availability of the plant.

Scientists turned to synthetic biology to produce artemisinin from the bacteria E. coli in huge, brewery-like tanks. The goal is to produce it at a volume and price that will allow it to be distributed on a mass scale, changing the course of a disease that kills an estimated 650,000 people a year.

"To have a process that's every much as technology sophisticated as we use to get our drugs in the developed world, and to deliver it to people at a cost where they can afford it," Keasling said.

Keasling and his colleagues are now hoping the large scale production that begins this month will provide up to 150 million doses by the end of next year.

Although the pricing hasn't yet been set, Sanofi, the company producing the drug, says it will manufacture it on a not-for-profit model. The final per patient doses are expected to be significantly cheaper than current artemisinin-based drugs.

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