Malaria milestone ‘took a village’

April 25, 2013
By: Robert Sanders

On April 25, World Malaria Day, the nonprofit Zagaya released a video Illustrating why, in the words of UC Berkeley synthetic biologist Jay Keasling, “it took a village” to create an accessible treatment for malaria that will be essential to eradicating the disease.

Sparked 12 years ago by a “Eureka” moment in Keasling’s lab, the new treatment – a semi-synthetic version of the proven antimalarial artemisinin – resulted from the combined work of biotech firm Amyris, the Institute for OneWorld Health and the pharmaceutical firm Sanofi. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provided $50 million to fund the work. On April 11, the team members celebrated a milestone in the fight against malaria: Sanofi’s release of the semi-synthetic artemisinin ready for incorporation into so-called artemisinin combination therapies.

While the new version of artemisinin will stabilize the supply and price of artemisinin-based antimalarial drugs, eradicating the disease will take a sustained effort by health workers in malaria-prone areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Zagaya’s goal is to make sure ACTs are accessible and affordable to treat the more than 200 million cases of malaria worldwide each year and prevent more than 600,000 deaths annually.

“We work really hard at finding the right partners, folks who really firmly believe that the drug needs to get to patients at the lowest possible cost,” said Kay Monroe, executive director of Zagaya. The organization was cofounded by Keasling and Amyris chief science officer Jack Newman to encourage the use of new technology to drive down the cost of malaria treatments, which are often unaffordable to those that need them.

“I think our cause is a very noble cause and something that is really important for the world community to do,” Keasling added. “But we are going to need help, a lot of help.”