Sanofi plant ramps up malaria treatment with cutting-edge technology

Malaria kills about 665,000 people a year, but keeping a steady supply of the most effective antimalarial drug has been a challenge. That is because the key ingredient, artemisinin, comes from the hard-to-come-by sweet wormwood plant, making supplies uncertain and prices unstable. 

Now a California biotech and university researchers have come up with a process to synthesize artemisinin and Sanofi ($SNY) is already jumping on the technology. The drugmaker says it soon will be able to make tons of it, enough to supply a third of global demand, which will create a cost effective and stable supply.

"It's the volatility that really makes the supply chain for this life-saving drug just a complete train wreck," Jack Newman, chief scientific officer of Amyris told National Public Radio. The new process that Amyris developed with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, can synthesize artemisinin in a lab and produce large quantities of it in yeast, which earlier attempts had failed to accomplish. A story in the Wednesday issue of Nature lays out the process. 

Sanofi and the Seattle-based nonprofit PATH, which has coordinated the program over 9 years, announced today that the French drugmaker is scaling up the biochemical process at a plant in Garessio, Italy. They said that the fermentation process will be done by Huverpharma in Bulgaria. The synthetic transformation of the artemisinic acid into artemisinin via photochemistry, will be done at the Garessio facility. Sanofi said it plans to produce 35 tons of artemisinin this year and between 50 to 60 tons annually by 2014. It is said that would create between 80 and 150 million artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) treatments.

That should be enough to create a steady supply and stabilize the cost of artemisinin, which under the old process were all over the board. Between 2003 and 2004, the price climbed to nearly $550 a pound, from $100 a pound, but crashed again a few years later, NPR reports. Then in 2009, prices doubled. The problems with keeping a steady supply of affordable treatments for malaria also open up the window for counterfeits and substandard treatments. They are a huge problem in developing countries because they are ineffective but also raise resistance to quality treatments.

- here's the NPR piece
- get the link to the Nature article
- read the Sanofi, PATH announcement