Launch of Semi-Synthetic Artemisinin

In April 2013, the semi-synthetic artemisinin project reached the conclusion of it saga — commercial launch. Officials from Sanofi, its partners, the malaria community and the Italian government gathered with local, national and international press at Sanofi’s plant in Garessio, Italy to witness the culmination of this multi-year project.

Artemisinin is the starting material for a major component of Artemisinin-based Combination Therapy (ACTs), which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as the standard of treatment for uncomplicated malaria. According to the WHO, there were about 219 million cases of malaria in 2010, with an estimated 660,000 deaths. Africa is most affected, with about 90% of all malaria deaths occurring there.  For more information about malaria, wee the WHO World Malaria Report 2012.

Artemisinin traditionally comes from the plant, Artemisia annua (the Chinese sweet wormwood), and has been used by Chinese herbalists for more than two thousand years in the treatment of many illnesses, such as skin disease and malaria. Due to poor bioavailability, derivatives of artemisinin have been developed as medicines.  However, as resistance to artemisinin derivatives has been developing, the WHO discourages the use of artemisinin derivatives alone. Instead the WHO recommends combination therapy using ACTs. Several fixed dose combinations are available.

The idea of using synthetic biology to generate bacterial artemisinin was originally conceived by Dr. Jay Keasling at the University of California, Berkeley. In a collaboration among UC Berkeley, Amyris Inc. and OneWorld Health, the Artemisinin Project transformed into a research project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


Jay KeaslingRobert SebbagAmong the speakers at the April launch program were Dr. Jay Keasling, inventor of the semi-synthetic process, Dr. Ponni Subbiah, Global Project Leader for PATH, the successor of OneWorld Health, Robert Sebbag, Sanofi’s Vice President for Access to Medicines, and Phillipe Luscan, Sanofi’s Senior Vice President for Industrial Affairs.


img-20130411-00618Archbishop @ lunchFollowing the press conference and launch presentation, the participants were invited on a short tour of the semi-synthetic artemisinin production at the Garessio plant. As part of these festivities, Sanofi held a lunch celebration at the plant for all plant employees and their families.


Project ReunionThe evening prior to the events at the Garessio plant, many of the individuals who participated in making this project a success had a small reunion.  Most of the project managers as well as the legal and business teams from OneWorld Health and Sanofi were in attendance.  Senior management from Amyris, including CEO John Melo and founder Jack Newman, also attended.


As part of the overall process for making commercial sem-synthetic artemisinin, Sanofi scientists invented a photosynthetic process, which garnered them the French Pierre Potier Scientific Prize in 2012 (see video).

Since the launch in April, Sanofi has achieved WHO pre-qualification for semi-synthetic artemisinin.

For more news on the Launch, see:  Launch of large scale production of semi-synthetic artemisinin.

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