Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, are relying on synthetic biology to produce sufficient amounts of a medicine based on an ancient Chinese herbal remedy, to protect over a million children who die each year from malaria.
The drug called artemisinin is based on extracts from the Chinese plant Artemesia annua (sweet wormwood), which has been used in China to treat malaria since at least the second century BC.
It is said to be too expensive for the majority of people in developing countries who contract malaria from mosquito bites.
The scientists now believe that synthetic biology, wherein genetically engineered microbes with implanted artificial chromosomes (gene "cassettes") are grown in giant fermenting vats may help make enough quantities of the drug in a single bioreactor within two years to supply the needs of up to 500 million people suffering from malaria, at a 10th of the cost of existing drugs.
They say that producing a semi-synthetic form of artemisinin on an industrial scale using a single bioreactor, as big as a three-storey town house, might cut its price to an extent that it would become the cheapest and most effective anti-malarial drug on the market.
Professor Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, said that the low price and widespread availability of the semi-synthetic drug could help undermine the counterfeit market in artemisinin, which increases the risk of drug resistance as well as doing little to help malaria patients.
"We want it to be affordable to people who need it, to be available to people who need it, and we don't want it to be abused," the Independent quoted Professor Keasling as saying, during a two-day conference on synthetic biology at the Royal Society in London.
"The process is very similar to brewing beer but we're talking about turning on 12 genes simultaneously in the genetically engineered yeast cells and controlling their outputs to balance the metabolic pathway leading to artemisinin," he added.
He revealed that the work on the new approach to making the medicine started with a grant of $ 42.6 million (about Rs 170 crore) from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and that it was being taken into industrial production with the help of the French company Sanofi Aventis.
He also revealed that Sanofi Aventis would be building a bioreactor in Europe by 2010, which would produce continuous amounts of the drug in sufficient quantities to treat the 500 million people a year who develop malaria.
Professor Keasling said that producing semi-synthetic artemisinin on an industrial scale would also undermine speculators who had hoarded stockpiles of the wild plant, raising prices fourfold.
"We can drive down costs, hitting the market price at its launch and significantly reducing costs further over time," he said.