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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Canadians make malaria breakthrough

By Lana Haight, Postmedia News

Children rest under a mosquito net in Prey Mong Kol, Cambodia in a file photo. Malaria is contracted when people are bitten by mosquitoes infected with a parasite called Plasmodium.Photograph by: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images

SASKATOON — Scientists in Saskatoon have developed an inexpensive malaria treatment that will help the million people who die every year from the infection.

“This is the most important drug in the treatment of malaria today. The World Health Organization says it should be the first line of defence,” said Patrick Covello, a senior research officer at the National Research Council in Saskatoon.

Covello and his team figured out a way to produce a difficult-to-cultivate chemical needed to build effective malaria drugs.

The breakthrough was announced Friday at the National Research Council Plant Biotechnology Institute.

The best drugs available to fight malaria are made with artemisinin, a compound derived from the sweet wormwood plant found in parts of Asia and Africa. But cultivating and harvesting the plant and then extracting artemisinin is time-consuming and labour intensive, says Covello. And the supply of the natural compound is also dependent on weather and growing conditions.

In 2003, Covello began work to identify the genes in the wormwood plant that produce the protein that leads to artemisinin.

“We identified four genes in what we call the pathway to artemisinin in the plant,” he said in an interview.

Meanwhile, University of California at Berkley researchers found they could develop a precusor to artemisinin by introducing chemicals into yeast.

Covello contacted Amyris Technologies, a spinoff company from the Berkeley research group, to suggest it use the genes his group had identified in the wormwood plant. When two of the genes identified in Saskatoon were introduced to the yeast compound developed at Berkeley, the production of artemisinin doubled.

The Institute for OneWorld Health, the American-based organization that has led the project to develop the semi-synthetic artemisinin, and pharmaceutical company Sanofi-aventis jointly announced on Friday that the drug company is preparing to ramp up production using the genes identified in Saskatoon.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has already contributed $42.6 million toward the American research, is also supporting the production of the drug to ensure it will be available on a not-for-profit basis for the developing world.

“The idea is to provide the developing world with antimalarial drugs at the lowest possible cost and, in addition, to provide a very stable supply because this yeast-fermentation process is shorter term and more reliable than growing the plants themselves,” said Covello.

Covello understands that Sanofi-aventis will begin commercial-scale production in 2012.

The federal government has spent $869,000 over eight years to support the Saskatoon research.

“Our government is committed to improving the health of women and children in developing countries,” said Gary Goodyear, minister of state for science and technology, in a government news release.

“This new development in the production of a malaria treatment represents a major development in the fight against the disease. It will strengthen Canada’s position as a world leader in health research and provide a reliable and affordable solution.”

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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