Wednesday 8 May 2013

Flower Power - A Floral Molecule

Today’s flower is closely related to one I’ve already covered on this blog, Lad’s Love (Artemisia abrotanum). Today’s flower is sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua). It is the source of the Molecule of the Week, the main drug used to treat malaria – artemisinin. It’s quite a recent drug. It was first discovered and used by the Chinese in the 1970s, who were reluctant at first to pass on their discovery to the rest of the world, given the suspicion China had for the West at that time. Traditional Chinese medicine has always been highly regarded, and it was the use of sweet wormwood in medicine for over 2,000 that led the Chinese to research it’s medicinal properties.

Even though sweet wormwood grows all over the world and many drug companies now have plantations, extracting artemisinin is expensive. With almost a million people, including one child in Africa every 45 seconds, dying from malaria other methods of producing the drug, which has been the best and preferred drug for malaria treatment since 2006, has been on the minds of many biochemists.

For over ten years one gay scientist has been working on the synthetic production of artemisinin from bacteria. His name is Dr. Jay Keasling, Professor of Bio-chemical Engineering at the University of California Berkeley, and Chief Executive Officer of the Joint Bioenergy Institute, or J-BEI.

Jay’s work crosses several sciences – biochemistry, genetic engineering and synthetic biology. But at the root of his work on artemisinin is the reproduction of the chemical that comes from sweet wormwood.

Jay was born and raised on a Nebraska farm. He says that his research with producing artemisinin synthetically from yeast and e-coli bacteria has put his career in more touch with the farm than ever before.

Jay has compared the processes involved in producing the drug to a chemical factory. Using synthetically  manufactured DNA Jay has managed a way to make yeast and e-coli churn out artemisinin as if they were mini chemical factories. When Jay and his research team made their first successful production of the drug in this way in 2003 they were hailed as pioneers of bio-engineering.

In 2004 the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Jay $42.5 million to carry on research in order to produce artemisinin in enough quantities to distribute world-wide. Very soon, this year, in fact, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventi will turn Jay’s dream of a cheap and plentiful production of artemisinin into reality with the drug being launched on the market in the coming months.

Very soon millions of malaria sufferers will be treated with the synthetic drug created by Jay Keasling and, who knows, perhaps we’ll see the end of malaria as a fatal disease in our own lifetime.

But Jay is not stopping at artemisinin. Using the same techniques but synthesising other chemicals in the bacteria he has created a way for e-coli to produce a biofuel which will, hopefully, replace the oil-based fossil fuels currently ruling the world.

In 2006 Jay became “Discover” magazine’s first Scientist of the Year, and in 2010 he was announced as GLBT Engineer of the Year by the National Organisation for Gay and Lesbian Scientific and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP). Jay was profiled on the PBS programmes “NOVAscience NOW” in 2011. Here is that programme in full, but if you want to skip forward to Jay’s profile go 39 minutes and 52 seconds into the programme.

Jay Keasling’s work may change the world. And all of this because the ancient Chinese saw the medicinal benefits in a plant called sweet wormwood.

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