Sanofi at vanguard with new process for antimalarial drugs

French drugmaker Sanofi ($SNY) said today it is gearing up to produce tons of artemisinin, the key ingredient for antimalarial treatments. Artemisinin usually comes from the scarce sweet wormwood plant, but using cutting edge technology, Sanofi will make a synthetic version of artemisinin. The new method will allow it to produce enough supplies to bring stability to the volatile market for the drugs.  

"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, 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 and manufacturing will be handled at the Garessio facility. Sanofi expects to produce 35 tons of the synthetic ingredient this year and up to 60 tons annually starting in 2014. That is enough to make between 80 and 150 million doses of the drug. 

The steady supply should also stabilize prices for 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, which are a huge problems in developing countries not only because they are ineffective but also raise resistance to quality treatments.

- get the NPR piece
- here's a link to the Nature article
- read the Sanofi/PATH release