Malaria is a parasitic disease that kills over 600,000 people each year. More than 90% of the victims live in Sub-Saharan Africa. While there are medications to prevent and treat malaria, those who are most likely to be affected do not have access to those drugs or cannot afford them. This is still the case even though a portion of the price has been subsidized by the WHO and other health organizations.
This scarcity has led to a booming business of counterfeit medications which contain little or none of the active ingredients. In order to curb the dispersal of these fake drugs, legitimate products must become cheaper and more readily available. This may not be very far off, as a group of researchers have found a way to continuously synthesize four types of pure antimalarial medications out of waste products using only one process. The research was led by Peter Seeberger of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, and the paper was published in Chemical Communications.
Artemisinin is derived from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) and serves as the basis for four fast-acting antimalarial drugs: Artemether, Artesunate, Artemotil and Dihydroartemisinin. While Artemisinin can be extracted in African and Asian countries, its derivatives are synthesized predominantly in Switzerland, India and China. These multiple steps slow down production and add cost.
“The new method will allow for the possibility to transfer further steps of the value chain to developing countries, which currently only grow and extract the plant,” lead author Kerry Gilmore said in a media release. “More importantly, this can help to dramatically shorten the supply chain and increase the capabilities of developing countries with respect to their pharmaceutical independence.”
After Artemisinin is extracted from the wormwood, there is leftover plant waste material. Seeberger discovered in 2012 that it was possible to cheaply produce more Artemisinin from that waste using a photoreactor, effectively doubling the amount of intermediary product available from the plant. In the current paper, the waste-derived Artemisinin is subjected to a system that links the reactions needed to continuously produce the four desired antimalarials. Even better, the purity of the medications goes above and beyond the mandates of the FDA and WHO.
“We think our approach could be the best solution to lower the cost of anti-malarial production. We can use all major substances in the plant, our method is cheaper than all others and produces very pure medications,” Seeberger explained.
“We are currently negotiating with several interested parties from developing countries to produce an industrial plant with a capacity of up to 20 tons. Our goal is to lower the prices of malaria medications, no matter if we get funding from any outside entity or not.”
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