Campus professor receives Heinz award for malaria treatment development

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A UC Berkeley professor has been awarded the prestigious Heinz Award for his research developing inexpensive treatments for malaria.

Jay Keasling, who in 2004 began researching the use of plants that naturally produce a chemical compound used in malaria treatment, said he received a call from the Heinz Endowments Board of Directors chair and award founder Teresa Heinz about two weeks ago to inform him of the $250,000 award. The foundation announced recipients of the award Wednesday.

“A couple of weeks ago, I got a call from Teresa Heinz,” Keasling said. “It was almost as exciting as getting the award itself.”

By extracting genes from the chemical compound artemisinin and transplanting them into yeast, Keasling was able to reduce the cost of antimalarial treatment.

“(Keasling’s research) will have a great impact,” said Kim O’Dell, Heinz Awards director. “The production of artemisinin and the way he went about creating (it) is opening up a totally new area in that field.”

Keasling’s research was funded by a $42.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and he conducted it with the help of Michelle Chang, who is now an assistant professor in the campus department of chemistry and was previously a postdoctoral student in his lab.

By combining the compound with yeast, Keasling was able to create microbial “factories” to produce large quantities of artemisinin, according to a press release announcing the award. Because it uses yeast, this form of artemisinin is much less expensive to manufacture than it is to directly extract from plants, Keasling said.

Keasling added that the reduced costs of producing this drug make it ideal for widespread treatment in developing countries and regions where malaria is prevalent.

“It depends on demand, (but the drug) cost can be around $2 for adults, $1 for children,” Keasling said.

Large-scale production of the yeast-based drug is scheduled for the end of this year, according to Keasling. However, before this treatment can be implemented in other parts of the world, the World Health Organization will have to approve its distribution.

Keasling’s colleagues at UC Berkeley and others in the scientific community said his work has the potential to change health care services worldwide.

“(Keasling’s) work is having a major impact on human health and well-being throughout the world, and his pioneering development of a low-cost production system for artemisinin is a life-saving breakthrough,” said Douglas Clark, chair of the campus department of chemical and biomolecular engineering. “This is a very exciting frontier that is being actively expanded in our own department and in others on the Berkeley campus.”

Keasling will accept the award at a ceremony in October in Pittsburgh.

Contact Lindsey Lohman at [email protected].