Picture a two-liter bottle of soda pop, and then picture a vat the size of a three-story building. The pop bottle represents a point in time nine years ago, and the vat is today’s reality. But this isn’t about a fizzy drink—it’s about greatly expanding the availability of malaria treatment.
This week, PATH and our partners celebrated the official launch of the production line for a new synthetic version of artemisinin, the key ingredient for the gold-standard malaria treatment—one that plays a major role in protecting the lives of children and adults worldwide. Until now, the only source of artemisinin has been the leaves of the sweet wormwood plant, a crop harvested in just a few regions of the world. Its volatile cost and unpredictable supply has put antimalarial treatment out of reach for many people most at risk.
But global pharmaceutical company Sanofi’s factory in Italy is now pumping out semisynthetic artemisinin that will be able to bolster the existing botanical supply and meet approximately one-third of the global demand for antimalarial treatment. With more than 200 million people sickened and about 650,000 killed by malaria each year, this new source of artemisinin will have a dramatic impact on global efforts to fight malaria and save lives.
Reaching this point is significant for a few reasons. Promoting a steady and affordable supply of the drug is a critical part of our efforts to ultimately eradicate malaria and advance health equity. A life free from malaria is a life full of possibilities, and this new source of artemisinin means a more stable flow of lifesaving antimalarial treatment to the people who need it most. But just as important, this milestone shows the strength of collaboration across the public and private sectors to advance science for the benefit of global health.
Nine years ago, when OneWorld Health (now PATH’s Drug Development program) began coordinating this ambitious project, the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), research laboratory we partnered with produced just two liters of artemisinin at a time. With a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we brought together partners from academia, the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries, and public health to refine and expand the process to produce artemisinin on a global scale.
All of the partners juggled their own interests with an eagerness to work together on a common goal of eradicating malaria. Dr. Jay Keasling’s lab at UCB provided the technology to genetically alter yeast to produce artemisinic acid, and California biotech start-up Amyris, Inc., and the National Research Council Canada Plant Biotechnology Institute contributed crucial scientific know-how and intellectual property to move the process closer to an industrial scale.
In 2007, we joined forces with Sanofi, which provided the chemistry expertise, industrial experience, and manufacturing capacity to bring us to where we are today. Sanofi plans to produce 35 tons of artemisinin this year and reach 50 to 60 tons annually by 2014.
Ever since the World Health Organization recommended artemisinin-based combination therapies as a first-line treatment for uncomplicated malaria cases in 2001, global demand for the treatment has skyrocketed. Now, the world will be able to better meet this demand.
I’m gratified to see the efforts of our strong partnerships come to fruition and to see a growing trend in cross-sector collaboration among our sister organizations in global health. There are many public health problems to solve, and many opportunities for partnerships to meet these challenges head-on. Let’s move more great ideas from soda pop bottles to three-story vats and give even more people a chance at a healthy life.