NMR spectrometry to unlock secrets of artemisinin malaria drug

4 May 2010

A new project at Reading University aims to unlock the biosynthetic pathway by which the Chinese Wormwood plant produces artemisinin, a drug effective against malaria.

Facilitating his research is the University’s new Chemical Analysis Facility (CAF), a £4.5 million centre for chemical analysis which includes four state-of-the-art nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers.

Dr Geoff Brown, from the University's Department of Chemistry is beginning a £400,000 project to make antimalarial drugs more affordable in developing countries where more than 1.5 million people die of the disease every year.

The traditional forms of drugs used to treat malaria infection were quinine-based, but malaria has now become resistant to such drugs in many parts of the World. Using the CAF’s facilities, Dr Brown aims to be the first researcher to fully understand the way in which the Chinese Wormwood plant produces artemisinin, an antimalarial drug effective against quinine-resistant malaria. This fundamental research will help pharmaceutical companies to mass-produce artemisinin in a more cost-effective way.

Dr Brown explained: “Artemisinin is effective at treating malaria but is relatively expensive to produce, making it unaffordable to many in developing countries who need it most. Trying to understand how the Chinese wormwood plant assembles artemisinin at the molecular level is a difficult challenge, which has never been fully resolved, even after almost 30 years of research. The state-of-the art instrumentation in CAF is now helping us to finally solve this difficult problem, providing basic knowledge which can be translated into cheaper and more reliable methods for the production of artemisinin in the future.”

Dr Brown continued: “Although malaria is currently a Third World disease, restricted to tropical/sub-Tropical regions, as temperatures rise because of global warming, it could once again appear in many parts of the Developed World.”

One option for producing a cheaper version of the drug is through biofermentation, something used more and more commonly in drug manufacture. This uses a microorganism, such as yeast, to produce large quantities of a drug during the fermentation process (much like the way in which alcohol is produced during the fermentation of beer).

In order to do this cheaply and reliably for artemisinin, scientists need to fully understand the way in which the Chinese Wormwood plant produces artemisinin in a step-by-step process, known as a biosynthetic pathway. Dr Brown aims to be the first to describe every chemical step in this pathway.

The CAF, opened by President of the Royal Society of Chemistry Professor David Garner, will also underpin innovative research in, among others, archaeology, agriculture, soil science and engineering. Medically related topics form a significant portion of the work using the CAF facilities, embracing fields such as pharmaceutics, drug synthesis and nutrition.

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