December 20, 2008
Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering Professor Jay Keasling was featured in Newsweek as a “Person to Watch”. The article focuses on his synthetic biology work building molecular tools to turn common ingredients into medical artemisinin and to make malaria drugs affordable and accessible.
Malaria is a disease that kills more than 1 million people every year, mostly infants and young children from the world’s poorest regions. With a 90 percent cure rate, artemisinin is easily the most powerful antimalaria drug on the market. But extracting the clunky molecule from the sweet-wormwood plant that produces it is slow and expensive. In fact, the medication is so scarce that most of the world’s 3 million malaria patients are dying for want of it.
Keasling’s team inserted wormwood genes into a simple yeast cell, and then reprogrammed some of that cell’s own genes to create a microorganism that can spin sugar into artemisinin. Growing this microbe in a broth of glucose can produce volumes of the precious drug in mere hours, reducing the manufacturing costs from dollars to pennies per dose.