More Artemisinin to Fight Malaria
Researchers at UC Berkeley engineered yeast to produce a precursor to artemisinin, the important anti-malerial drug. Both public and private partners played a critical role in the development of this semi-synthetic compound. UC Berkeley, One World Health, and Amyris, Inc. worked together toward more affordable and accessible sources of anti-malarial drugs for developing countries.
Photo credit: WHO/S Hollyman
Malaria kills more than 2,000 people a day. In Africa, 20% of childhood deaths are malaria-related. The disease causes enormous personal, societal, and economic losses across the world. But it’s a preventable, curable disease.
Artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) are effective in treating malaria patients. Artemisinin (also known as Qinghaosu) comes from the plant Artemisia annua (the Chinese Sweet Wormwood plant). The process of cultivating and extracting artemisinin from the plant is expensive, highly variable, and time consuming. In order to provide affordable and reliable access to ACTs for large populations around the world, a more efficient way of producing semi-synthetic artemisinin is required.1
A new technology that offers a predictable and scalable opportunity would diversify sources of artemisinin, make the cost of ACTs more affordable through lowering the cost of artemisinin production, increase the amount of artemisinin available for market, and prevent shortage-driven pricing structures.
Chemical synthesis of the molecule was deemed too complex a process to be commercially viable. But researchers at UC Berkeley invented a way to create a precursor of artemisinin – using a multi-step, synthetic biology process in bacteria. Production of the precursor in microbes allows for a consistent, reliable, affordable, and scalable supply. This supply can be converted (through synthetic chemistry developed at Amyris, Inc.) to artemisinin. The synthetic biology platform developed for artemisinin also has multiple commercial uses, including the production of other drugs and nutraceuticals, and further leading to what has become a central focus of Amyris's business - production of biofuels.
The IP Strategy
The IP strategy required a three-party collaboration agreement as well as several license agreements. UC Berkeley licensed the technology to Amyris (a company co-founded by UC Berkeley researcher Jay Keasling) under terms that distinguished use in developing countries from use in developed-country markets. In addition to a license restricted to developing country uses, Amyris was granted the right to use the technology for the following fields of use in for-profit markets: (1) the developed-world malaria market; (2) non-malaria indications of artemisinin; and (3) alternative uses of the platform worldwide. Uses of the technology for developing country malaria applications were granted royalty-free. For other uses, the terms of the license included royalty obligations.
UC Berkeley also granted a license to the Institute for One World Health to allow the institute to foster manufacturing and distribution partnerships for ACTs in developing countries. One World Helalth was granted a royalty-free license for use of the technology in the manufacture of artemisinin-based malaria drugs in eighty-eight developing countries.
The partnership structure provided benefits to UC Berkeley in the form of research funding, Institute for One World Health was able to further its mission of working toward more affordable malaria treatments for developing countries, and Amyris received significant start-up funding and was able to apply the technology to other commercial applications in biofuels.