SAN FRANCISCO — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is expected to donate $42.6 million today to a novel nonprofit drug company that hopes to make a cheaper malaria treatment by applying a new biotechnology recipe to an ancient Chinese remedy.
The San Francisco-based Institute of OneWorld Health will work with UC Berkeley and a small Albany, Calif.-based biotechnology company to turn the genetic engineering work of Berkeley's Jay Keasling into an inexpensive and effective drug to fight malaria in the Third World.
Keasling is developing a new way to manufacture artemisinin, a malaria fighter made from finely ground wormwood plants. Chinese first extracted artemisinin from the sweet wormwood plant for medicinal use more than 2,000 years ago, and since then it has been applied to a variety of ailments including hemorrhoids, coughs and fevers. But the method is expensive, time consuming and limited by access to wormwood.
"The plant can't supply a whole continent," said Victoria Hale, OneWorld's chief executive.
So Keasling and his colleagues are working on a way to eliminate the need for the plant by splicing its chemical-producing genes and yeast genes into E. coli and ultimately coaxing artemisinin from this creation.
Each year, 300 million to 500 million new cases of the mosquito-borne disease are diagnosed, according to the World Health Organization, and many of those who become ill can't afford the drugs needed. Some 1.5 million people, mostly children, die each year, mostly in Africa and Asia. Drug resistance is also a growing problem.
It costs about $2.40 per patient to treat malaria with a three-day drug regimen that includes the artemisinin.
Many Third World malaria sufferers can't afford the treatment, and Hale said the Gates money will be used to develop a malaria treatment that costs less than $1 per patient within five years.
"Our goal is to make this the primary source for fighting malaria," Hale said.
Hale launched OneWorld three years ago to develop drugs to treat Third World diseases largely ignored by pharmaceutical companies because of profit concerns.
The university owns the patent covering the genetic engineering of the wormwood and has licensed it free to OneWorld and Amyris Biotechnologies.
Combating malaria is one of the primary goals of the $27-billion Gates Foundation, which has doled out nearly $300 million in malaria-related grants. Unlike most science grants, the Gates money covers the whole discovery process -- from basic science to drug manufacturing.
"This is an extraordinary partnership between public and private institutions that combines cutting-edge science with a commitment to affordability and accessibility for those people in need," said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, director of infectious diseases at the Gates Foundation. "I hope that UC Berkeley's participation will serve as a model for other academic institutions to apply their scientific knowledge and resources to critical global health problems."
Keasling said the Gates grant has enabled him to hire 10 more researchers to complete the hunt for all the wormwood's genes needed to make the drug. So far, they've found one key gene and suspect they'll need to add three more to complete the process.
"It's an incredibly large amount of money," Keasling said. "We really need that kind of investment to get it done."
Producing such chemicals in bacteria could also preserve plants now destroyed for their chemical benefits, Keasling said. For example, the popular cancer-fighting drug Taxol is extracted from the Pacific yew tree, but only about 4 million Pacific yews grow in the Northwest. The researchers say Taxol could be manufactured in their genetically engineered bacteria.
U.S. researchers are investigating whether artemisinin could be used in fighting breast cancer.