Not only is artemisinin one of the most important drugs in our arsenal for fighting diseases globally – it is also the most interesting. A derivative of the wormwood plant, artemisinin’s anti-malarial properties were discovered thanks in part to the Vietnam war and Mao Zedong. The history of this drug reads more like an excerpt in the history of international relations rather than the history of medicine. Due to resistance that developed to quinine, artemisinin – in combination with other medicines – has become the drug of choice in most countries against malaria today.
In particular during the early years of the scale up of big-push initiatives to address malaria, the fact that we needed to cultivate and harvest wormwood plants in order to produce artemisinin was rate limiting and an unpredictable process. Demand outstripped supply and supply could be unreliable due to factors such as the weather. In addition, the long lead time and intensity of the cultivation process continues to contribute to the relatively higher costs of ACTs today.
It seems that this is about to change. I learned that as of today, and thanks to the efforts of PATH’s OneWorld Health, Sanofi, and other partners, we now have the ability to produce synthetic versions of artemisinin which can be produced in about 3 months, can be more readily scaled, and can be produced in a much more controlled fashion. This is a remarkable milestone in the fascinating history of this drug.
I’ve heard others say that a Nobel prize should be awarded to recognize the importance of the discovery of this drug – which has done so much to improve human health. It now seems that a new chapter, and new players, might also get to share in this prize if that in fact occurs.Share on Facebook