Innovation: Synthetic malaria cure
In the labs of Amyris Biotechnologies, scientists are transferring genes from microbe to microbe. This molecular manipulation is the basis of synthetic biology, which the company hopes will yield cheap, effective malaria drugs for the world's neediest patients.
At least 300 million people contract malaria each year, according to the World Health Organization. As the disease has built resistance to widely used drugs, the WHO has recommended a shift to a multiple-drug cure based on artemisinin, which is derived from the wormwood plant. But the so-called ACT treatment costs $2.40 for adults, a price tag out of reach for many of the afflicted.
Amyris aims to lower the cost to under $1 by engineering a chemically identical alternative to natural artemisinin. "There are certain genes within the plant that encode for the ability to make artemisinin," says Kinkead Reiling, one of Amyris's founders. "And in the grand scheme of things, that's a relatively simple trait." By inserting genes into E. coli, researchers created a bacterial strain that produced a precursor to artemisinin.
That work won the blessing of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which granted $42.6 million for Amyris, with the Institute of OneWorld Health and scientists at the University of California at Berkeley, to pursue a cure. Amyris says the research should be done in late 2007; production could begin a year or two later.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.