Public Health


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

There's a big step forward in the fight against malaria. Researchers in California have come up with a way to reproduce a key ingredient in the most common anti-malaria medicine. And a French drug maker is already at work on a new plant to manufacturer it.

As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, this advance is expected to produce a more stable market for malaria medicine and to cut the overall cost of treatment.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Malaria remains one of the biggest health problems on the planet. It affects nearly 200 million people a year and causes hundreds of thousands of deaths, mainly in Africa and Asia.

The good news on malaria, however, is that over the last decade the overall number of cases has been going down. This drop is directly related to the introduction and widespread use of artemisinin-based malaria drugs. The problem has been that artemisinin is derived sweet wormwood and there hasn't been enough of this bushy plant to meet demand.

Between 2003 and 2004, the price of artemisinin jumped from just over a hundred dollars a pound to almost $550. By 2007, artemisinin prices had crashed. Then two years later, prices almost doubled.

JACK NEWMAN: It's the volatility that really, you know, makes the supply chain for this life saving drug, you know, just a complete train wreck.

BEAUBIEN: Jack Newman is the chief scientific officer at Amyris, a bio-tech firm in the San Francisco Bay Area. In collaboration with researchers at UC Berkeley, Newman's company figured out how to synthesize a precursor to artemisinin in the lab and then grow large quantities of it on yeast.

Activists from PATH, a global health non-profit, shepherded the project forward. And this week, a French pharmaceutical company is holding a ribbon cutting for a new factory to produce synthetic artemisinin by the ton.

Ponni Subbiah with PATH says that by next year, the factory is expected to be manufacturing enough artemisinin to meet roughly a third of global demand.

PONNI SUBBIAH: The goal of this project from the outset was to really stabilize the prices and ensure a stable supply.

BEAUBIEN: That stability, she predicts, will eventually help drive down the cost of malaria drugs.

Subbiah says she also hopes that this model of a collaboration between academics, private bio-tech firms, non-profits, and commercial drug-makers can bear fruit against other diseases in the developing world.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington.

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