Engineering biology for the global challenge of malaria prevention

Malaria is a global health problem that threatens 300 to 500 million people and kills more than one million people annually.

Controlling this disease is hampered by the occurrence of multi-drug-resistant strains of the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Artemisinin, a complex chemical extracted from the plant Artemisia (commonly known as sweet wormwood), is highly effective against multi-drug-resistant Plasmodium, but is in short supply and unaffordable to most malaria sufferers . Although total synthesis of artemisinin is difficult and costly, the semi-synthesis of artemisinin from E.coli - sourced artemisinic acid, its immediate precursor, is cost-effective, environmentally friendly, high-quality, and a reliable source of artemisinin.

The production of semi-synthetic artemisinin was one of the first synthetic biology success stories - engineering biology to produce a pharmaceutical at industrial scale. The semi-synthetic artemisinin was shown to be functionally equivalent to the plant-derived drug, and approved by the WHO for the preparation of artemisinin derivatives (such as artesunate) for incorporation into artemisinin combination therapies.