By Harry Busz
A team of researchers at Cardiff University have discovered a simpler and more efficient way to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin.
The drug is commonly used to treat individuals with severe malaria – a life threatening infectious disease which the World Health Organisation estimated killed 438,000 people in 2015. The disease is transmitted by Anopheles mosquitos, a parasite that bites humans in order to obtain blood that they require to nurture their eggs.
The fatal disease can then lead to fever, headaches, chills and vomiting eventually infecting and destroying red blood cells and blocking capillaries in the brain. Although almost half of the world’s population is at risk of malaria, over 90% of cases are present in Sub-Saharan Africa, which causes both economic and social burdens on the region.
The disease is noted by the WHO as ‘perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty’ as it is often poor families who live in rural malaria-prone areas who are unable to protect themselves from transmission of the disease. Although the introduction of insecticide-treated mosquito nets and insecticide spraying has led to a decline in cases of infection, the precautions are never 100% effective or readily available.
Cardiff University researchers have discovered a method that produces synthetic Artemisinin, a compound that is naturally found in the Artemisia annua plant native to temperate Asia. The drug was discovered by Chinese scientist Tu Youyou in October 2015 who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her findings.
However, the plant consists of only 0.1-0.6% of the compound and extracting it is a lengthy process. The process to create a synthetic alternative reduces the number of steps needed the create an effective drug from thirteen to just four. This is done by reversing part of the plant’s production process by using a protein which generates amorphadiene, which is key in the chain of events that produces the anti-malarial.
Due to the findings the cost of purchasing antimalarial drugs is likely to fall, causing positive impacts on the distribution of the drugs to less developed nations. Rudolf Allemann, the chemistry professor who led the research team, hopes that the generic production method could be used to tackle malaria cases with Artemisinin-resistance. Allemann believes the researchers findings ‘might allow us to tackle malaria in a number of new ways’, crucial in areas such as Cambodia and Thailand where parasites resistant to antimalarial medicines are present.