Cheaper Anti-Malaria Drug Getting Closer
Nov. 27 -- Researchers at U.C. Berkeley are one step closer to making a malaria drug available to people around the globe. As Dr. Dean Edell reports, scientists have made a major breakthrough by identifying a crucial gene.
The goal is to use this information to produce a more affordable drug.
It is incomprehensible. Every thirty seconds a child dies of malaria. At any one time 300 to 500 million people have the disease. Up to 3 million die each year.
Jay Keasling, PhD., U.C. Berkeley researcher: "It's a huge problem."
Yet most Americans know nothing about it.
Dr. Jay Keasling: "It's a disease we have no concept for. We haven't had malaria in this country for decades, if not centuries."
Now U.C. Berkeley researchers, headed by Dr. Jay Keasling, are one step closer to finding a drug to prevent and treat this deadly disease. Currently scientists extract a drug from a plant called Artemisia Annua, also called wormwood. But it is incredibly costly and time-consuming to harvest the drug, pushing the price beyond the reach of most sick people.
At present, a single dose of the drug costs $2.50 dollars. The average person needing it lives on less than $1 dollar a day.
Dr. Jay Keasling: "The goal of our project is to produce the drug using microbes."
In an important breakthrough, Keasling's team has identified the drug-producing gene in Artemisia. And they've done that several years ahead of schedule, which is a major victory. One reason? The Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation has funded their state-of-the-art research center with the latest technology.
Dr. Jay Keasling: "Advanced technologies haven't often been used for developing world problems because advanced technologies are usually expensive."
Now to maximize drug production, project scientists have transferred the isolated gene into two different organisms -- a bacterium and a yeast -- to see which chemical factory can produce the most drug in the shortest time.
Dr. Jay Keasling: "We don't yet know which one is going to win out in the end."
But the researchers say overcoming this huge, first hurdle means that it is just a matter of time before they can scale-up production. The goal is to make this life-saving drug widely available to the many who need it and now they are one important step closer.
The Berkeley team says funding received from the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation allowed them access to state-of-the-art technology which is helping to accelerate their research. And a local non-profit company is gearing up to produce and distribute the drug as soon as researchers maximize initial production. But that is still several years away.
To learn more about malaria drug research, click here.
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