Have German Scientists Found A Way To End Malaria?

Half the world is at risk of Malaria, right now. Can new research from Germany shed some light on a cure?
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Half the world is at risk of Malaria, right now. Can new research from Germany shed some light on a cure?

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Potsdam in the eastern part of Germany, and formally in the DDR, would at first look seem to be an unlikely place to be talking about when discussing malaria. However, Potsdam happens to be where the Max Planck Institute is.

Scientists at the institute have found a cheap way to synthesise the active ingredient, artemisinin. Until now  only thought to be able to be extracted from wormwood, and mainly found in China and Vietnam. As a natural product it varies in its availability seasonally, and because of that there are large fluctuations in the price of the raw ingredient.

Peter H. Seeberger, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam and Professor of Chemistry at the Freie Universität Berlin and his colleague François Lévesque have discovered a very simple way of synthesising the artemisinin molecule.“The production of the drug is therefore no longer dependent on obtaining the active ingredient from plants,” says Seeberger.“And we have developed a simple apparatus for this process, which enables the production of large volumes of the substance under very controlled conditions.”

According to anti-malaria website malarianomore.org.uk, Half the world’s population is at risk of malaria, 781,000 people die of malaria every year and it affects the most vulnerable financially too.

- A child dies every 45 seconds of malaria.
- Over 90% of the 781,000 malaria deaths are in Africa
- 8% of all children who die before their fifth birthday die of malaria
- 40% of public health spending in some African countries affected by malaria is spent on the disease
- Malaria costs Africa over £8 billion a year in lost economic output
- It is estimated that up to 200,000 newborns die each year as a result of malaria in pregnancy and malaria can cause anaemia and death for pregnant women
- 40% of drug expenditure in affected countries is spent on malaria drugs

According to anti-malaria website malarianomore.org.uk, Half the world’s population is at risk of malaria...

Artemisinic acid can apparently be easily produced in genetically modified yeast by the use of photochemistry. The effect of the molecule, which not only targets malaria but possibly also other infections and even breast cancer, is due to, among other things, a very reactive chemical group formed by two neighbouring oxygen atoms – which chemists refer to as an endoperoxide.

“Photochemistry is a simple and cost-effective method. However, the pharmaceutical industry has not used it to date because it was so difficult to control and implement on a large scale,” explains Seeberger.

They state that after just four and a half minutes a solution flows out of the tube, in which 40 percent of the artemisinic acid has become artemisinin.

“We assume that 800 of our simple photoreactors would suffice to cover the global requirement for artemisinin,” Seeberger said.

And it could all happen very quickly. Peter Seeberger estimates that the innovative synthesis process could be ready for technical use in a matter of six months. This would alleviate the global shortage of artemisinin and exert considerable downward pressure on the price of the associated drugs, according to the Institute.

Could this be the end of a pernicious disease? We can only hope so.

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