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Yeast Produce Malaria Drug
Malaria is one of the top leading causes of death due to infectious disease worldwide. Every year, there are approximately 100 to 300 million cases of malaria, resulting in approximately one million deaths. Most of the cases of malaria occur in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as in parts of South East Asia, and Central and South America. A host is infected with malaria through the bite of a mosquito. The malaria parasite first grows in the liver, before it develops into a stage that can infect red blood cells. Once the malaria infects red blood cells, symptoms such as fever, malaise, and chills develop. Fatal malaria is often caused by one specific type of malaria, P. falciparum, which can infect both mature and young red blood cells. In addition, P. falciparum can cause the red blood cells to stick together, causing blockages in blood vessels due to the clumps of cells. If this occurs in the brain, it is called cerebral malaria, and can often be fatal. Quick, effective treatment of P. falciparum malaria is essential to help prevent death, as well as to prevent transmission of the parasite and the development of drug resistance.

Malaria effects impoverished areas disproportionately, which contributes to maintaining the cycle of poverty. When people are sick with malaria, they are unable to work, and must spend their money on treatments. However, accessing diagnostics and treatment may be difficult for many individuals in impoverished areas. Additionally, if multiple doses of medicine are required, the patient may not be able to obtain all the doses. This leads to drug-resistance, and compounds the detrimental effects of malaria in the area. Traditional, affordable medications such as chloroquine are not as useful as they once were due to the emergence of drug-resistant malaria.

An anti-malarial treatment that is gaining favor is artemisinin. Artemisinin is a drug that has been used in China for thousands of years to treat malaria. It is derived from the leaves of the sweet wormwood plant. Artemisinin is very effective, and because it has not been used extensively, there is currently a very low incidence of resistance, particularly in P. falciparum. However, artemisinin can sometimes be difficult to obtain. Because it comes from a plant source, production of the drug is dependent on proper growth conditions for the plants. The plants take months to grow, depending on environmental conditions. In addition, a limited number of manufacturers of artemisinin means that supply can vary considerably. Because the availability of artemisinin varies, the price can vary as well, making it difficult for people in impoverished areas to afford. In order for an anti-malarial drug to be usable worldwide, it must be easy to obtain and easy to afford for the populations most at-risk.

Fortunately, scientists have been able to produce precursors to artemisinin in yeast. The researchers had previously developed yeast that can produce amorphadiene, which is a precursor to artemisinic acid. As described in a recent publication in Nature, the researchers have been able to increase the yield of amorphadiene from the yeast, and have developed protocols to convert artemisinic acid to artemisinin. This could provide a considerable increase in the amount of artemisinin available to patients, compared to using only the standard approach to manufacturing the drug. The increased availability will also translate to reduced cost, and could help break the cycle of poverty, malaria, and drug resistance.

Indeed, being able to produce large quantities of anti-malarial drugs and distributing them is an important goal of many organizations dedicated to helping treat malaria. One model of malaria drug distribution is termed the Coca-cola model. This model poses the question: “How does Coca-cola get its product into the most remote areas of the world?” The answer is by selling the product at very low cost to retailers, so that the product is affordable in the area. Public health experts have suggested a similar strategy to get effective anti-malarial drugs to these areas. Manufacturers would sell the drugs to retailers for pennies, instead of dollars, with costs to the manufacturer offset by donors. The retailers could then sell the effective anti-malarial drugs for a cost similar to or below that of generic, knock-off anti-malarials. The cheap, rapid production of artemisinin using yeast could make this goal more realistic and help millions of people.

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