News Center

News from the Reed College public affairs office

Fighting Malaria On the Cheap

By Miles Bryan '13 on August 31, 2012 12:13 PM

Artisiminin.jpeg

Malaria is a killer. Over 200 million people are infected every year, and over one million, mostly children, die as a result. It is not a lack of medicine that allows malaria to run rampant; a highly effective treatment called Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACT) has existed for years. The issue is cost: ACT's main ingredient, artemisinin, is prohibitively expensive. A research team led by Indiana State University professor Silas Cook '99 has found a way to change that.

Artemisinin is usually obtained in one of two ways: harvesting it from its natural home in the sweet wormwood plant, or using a bit of biological alchemy to create a synthetic version. Harvesting it from wormwood is a difficult process to begin with: combined with crop shortages caused by poor planning, natural disasters, and other unpredictable disruptions, this method has proven incapable of providing a consistent, cheap yield.

Synthesis has always shown more promise, but, although chemists have developed several different methods to synthesize artemisinin over the last thirty years, none of them have been simple and cheap enough to compete with natural production. Silas and his team found a way to make this method competitive (outlined in an article for the Journal of the American Chemical Society). They did this by sidestepping the use of protecting groups, the transformative process usually used to build up the molecule of artemisinin. Instead, they relied on an innovative new approach called cascade reactions. By relying on cascade reactions, Silas was able to adopt the cheap, widely available chemical cyclohexanone as the building block of his synthesis—thus avoiding the expensive ingredients of traditional synthesis.

While the details of Silas's accomplishment may seem daunting to those who stayed away from the Science buildings, it holds vast potential for developing cheap, effective treatment for malaria. You don't have to be a chemist to know what that means.