Jay Keasling with children in a village outside Nairobi, Kenya. (Photo by Gabrielle Tenenbaumn)
1.7 million treatments of semisynthetic artemisinin have shipped to Africa, where they will treat malaria sufferers in Burkina Faso, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Niger and Nigeria over the next few months. This shipment is the culmination of a 13-year project in the lab of CBE professor Jay Keasling. Enough semisynthetic artemisinin has been produced for 70 million treatments, and the capacity exists to produce 100-150 million treatments annually.
The shipment signals a new era of lifesaving drugs made with safe, high-quality, and affordable artemisinin that is non-seasonal. By complementing botanically derived supplies, the new option can widen access to treatment for millions sickened by malaria every year—most of them young children in African countries.
This success is the result of a partnership between Keasling, his startup Amyris Biosciences, the healthcare company Sanofi, and the global health nonprofit organization PATH, which is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Semisynthetic artemisinin demonstrates how public-private partnerships, tenacity, and an urgent and shared goal—saving children’s lives—can drive promising innovations to transformative global scale,” says Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH.”
Artemisinin is a key ingredient in the combination therapies recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the first-line treatment for infection with the most deadly form of malaria. The existing botanical supply of artemisinin, derived from the sweet wormwood plant, is volatile due to a number of factors, resulting in inconsistent price and periodic shortages.
In the future, sustained production of semisynthetic artemisinin can help scale up global efforts to combat malaria. Sanofi currently has the capacity to produce 50 to 60 metric tons annually, which corresponds to a third of the global annual need for artemisinin and translates to up to 125 million lifesaving treatments.
Says Keasling, “This shipment culminates a 13-year project that began in my laboratory at Berkeley and involved many people at UC Berkeley and LBNL. This project would not have been possible without so many people working together. I want to say thank you to everyone for their support of the project and my laboratory.”