03 May

Malaria and Beer: a revolutionary relationship

What do your favourite beer and the cure for malaria have in common? Not much you would imagine, but a game-changing process developed in the University of California Berkeley is using techniques for brewing lager to create an almost limitless supply of a crucial anti-malarial drug.

Jay Keasling , the charismatic Professor of Biochemical Engineering at Berkeley has helped develop a process where yeast, modified by the introduction of synthetic genes, can produce different substances including artemisinic acid, a key weapon in combating malaria.

“The process is very similar to producing beer,” Keasling says. “We put in some sugar and minimal nutrients, and out comes artemisinic acid at the other end”

Previously the amount of artemisinin on the market, and hence its price, has been determined by the supply of Artemisia annua, a chinese herb, that produces the active ingredient of the drug. Now, by synthetically producing some of the Artemisia herb’s genes and building them into yeast, Keasling has produced a low cost means of mass producing the drug.

“With the yields that we are getting now, within 2 to 3 years one 50,000-liter chemical reactor could produce all the drug that is needed in the world” Keasling said.

Initially the company producing the drug is going to release it at market prices, but the hope is that with the ramping up of production the drug will become widely available in the developing world for little cost.

Author: Dr. Sam McManus