Page last updated at 08:40 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Technology to eradicate malaria

Wormwood plant
The wormwood plant is a source of the antimalarial drug artemisinin

Emerging technologies could boost supplies of essential plant-based drugs to combat and ultimately help eradicate malaria, says a report.

In the face of increasing parasite resistance to anti-malarial drugs there is now great reliance on artemisinin combination therapies to treat malaria.

But ACTs are expensive and demand threatens to outstrip supply.

Plant breeding, new drugs and clever ways to make artemisinin in the lab are the answer, according to world experts.

The report is based on the conclusions of the Artemisinin Enterprise Conference 2008, which was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Roll Back Malaria Partnership and hosted by the University of York.

Combating malaria

It assesses a portfolio of new technologies, collectively known as The Artemisinin Enterprise.

Around 100 million ACTs were sold in 2006, but forecasters say that demand will at least double over the next four years, potentially growing to over 300 million doses annually.

This is partly due to a recent decision by the global malaria community to subsidise the cost of ACTs.

Our goal is to create a stable, second source of artemisinin to supplement existing natural sources
Dr Philippe Desjeux of the Insitute for One World Health

There is already expected to be a shortage in 2010 owing to a lack of the Artemisia annua wormwood plant plant, the raw material for ACTs, being grown.

Malaria experts say three emerging technologies have the potential to fill this gap.

The Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York is using fast-track plant breeding to create crops that produce higher yields of artemisinin.

The centre has decided against using GM crops because of time delay that would be incurred to overcome the associated regulatory hurdles.

The non-profit organisation Medicines for Malaria Venture is developing synthetic artemisinin-like drugs. These experimental drugs have been shown to cure malaria in mice in just one dose.

Clinical trials in humans will begin in February or March 2009.

Meanwhile, the nonprofit pharmaceutical company Institute for One World Health is using fermentation combined with innovative synthetic chemistry to produce artemisinin.

Dr Philippe Desjeux of the Insitute for One World Health said: "Our goal is to create a stable, second source of artemisinin to supplement existing natural sources.

"It is hoped that this source of semi-synthetic artemisinin will be more affordable for drug manufacturers. In turn, this will help reduce the price of ACTs, making them more accessible to people in malaria afflicted countries."

He said commercial production should begin by 2011 or 2012.

In 2006 there were between 189 and 327 million cases of malaria with over 880,000 deaths - largely children in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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