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, see the WHO World Malaria Report 2012.
Artemisinin traditionally comes from the plant Artemisia annua (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 diseases and malaria. Due to poor bioavailability, derivatives of artemisinin have been developed as medicines. However, as malarial resistance to artemisinin derivatives is increasing, 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 (UC Berkeley). In a collaboration among UC Berkeley, Amyris Inc. and OneWorld Health, the Artemisinin Project transformed into a research project, and has been funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Read more at Microbially Derived Artemisinin.
In 2008, as the project progressed, French pharmaceutical Sanofi joined the project to further develop and ultimately sell the semi-synthetic artemisinin for use in malaria therapies. See, Semi-Synthetic Artemisinin Project and the various updates, 2010 and 2011, as well as the recent video.
This project celebrated its commercial launch in early April 2013.