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by Marijana Domazet, Monday, April 22, 2013 | Categories: Malaria Treatments

The development of artemisinin, one of the most common treatments for malaria, is rather complex and can take up to 18 months. One reason for that is that artemisinin is traditionally obtained from leaves of sweet wormwood (the so-called artemesia annua). However, now a breakthrough has been made in research where it appears that a synthetic version of artemisinin can be produced within 3 weeks. Here we consider the implications of these findings.

The synthetic version was engineered in labs that specialise in bioengineered yeast and the reports explaining how it works were recently published in Nature. Essentially, the researchers used a process to artificially build DNA strands in laboratories, which were then used to re-engineer microbes to behave as tiny factories. This is not a novel process, and currently the Bill Gates Foundation is supporting the development of these laboratories that are also looking into developing other treatments.

However, the creation of synthetic artemisinin comes at a cost of affecting farmers that grow sweet wormwood. Although artemisinin is the treatment that is most widely recommended by the WHO, there have been problems with the production of artemisinin in the past. These were mostly attributed to the unstable growth of wormwood trees. As such it has resulted in production delays and price fluctuations that have further complicated the matter. Based on this, we can sympathise with the researchers reasoning for creating a treatment that would be faster and more cost-efficient but equally effective.

But it is also important to remember that the use of wormwood trees should not be obliterated. While synthetic materials may be useful, they also often tend to be somewhat one-dimensional. Given that we already know about the risk of malaria parasites developing resistance to treatments, we need to allow for the option to develop flexible treatments when it is needed. Traditionally, these tend to stem from natural components that then become converted into synthetic versions.

A fuller version of the report can be read here.

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