It has been an exciting year for Jay Keasling, one that marks the climax of a long journey to help develop an inexpensive treatment for malaria.
Earlier this year, the UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering won the prestigious Heinz Award for his research. Last week, he flew to Italy to watch his work be implemented in a solution that could help millions of malaria victims worldwide.
“(The experience) has been fantastic,” Keasling said. “You don’t often get to see your research being turned into actual medication.”
His research on the synthetic production of artemisinin, a key component in the today’s dominant medication for malaria, began more than 12 years ago. Artemisinin was previously only produced by harvesting wormwood plants, the supply of which fluctuated dramatically, affecting the price of the medication.
Scientists in Keasling’s lab began to look for alternative sources to complement the botanical supply. By isolating the gene that produces artemisinin and implanting it in yeast plants, Keasling and his team were able to find a cheaper and faster way to harvest the chemical.
The implications are huge. With an alternative source of this crucial chemical, pharmaceutical companies will be able to produce and perhaps stabilize antimalarial medication at a lower price.
“Most people that have malaria are very poor, some living on less than a dollar per day,” Keasling said. “Any time you can decrease the cost for them, that’s a huge deal and means they might even be able to buy the medication themselves.”
Pharmaceutical company Sanofi launched large-scale production of semi-synthetic artemisinin last week. The hope is that Sanofi will be able to produce up to 60 tons of the chemical per year by 2014, or roughly 80 million to 150 million treatments, according to a press release.
The synthetic biology research company Amyris helped transition Keasling’s initial work to commercial production, and its road from research to development was facilitated by nonprofit organization PATH.
“I’m a physician, and I’ve had the opportunity to work in India and Uganda,” said Ponni Subbiah, global program leader of PATH. “I see how devastating it can be when my patients don’t have access to the medication. Getting these medications to these people at a lower cost is crucial.”
Subbiah noted that steps remain until treatment can be officially produced, saying that the World Health Organization still has to approve the semi-synthetic material and its distribution. She and others agree, however, that the experience has been very fulfilling and is an example of a successful collaboration between the public and private sectors.
Jack Newman, co-founder and chief science officer of Amyris and one of Keasling’s colleagues, emphasized that Keasling’s contribution was the foundation of the effort.
“Jay is somebody who creates change through positive attitude,” Newman said. “The stuff we do is difficult and can be frustrating, but he always leads with optimism and always leads with (an) outlook that accepts what’s in front of us.”