Sunday, February 11, 2007

This article was originally published in the Bath University student paper 'Impact'

A malarial dream

A group of chemical engineers at Bath University are part of a research and business consortium to have won a £500,000 grant to aid the worldwide effort in combating the spread of malaria. The research team, led by Dr Alexei Lapkin from the University's Department of Chemical Engineering was originally commissioned (in 2005) by the non-profit Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV) and the Dutch Government to evaluate a range of new technologies. The aim was to find ways in which large-scale production of malaria medication could be made cheaper and environmentally friendly.
These investigations led the team to discover innovative ways in which artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs) can be produced.

Malaria is currently affecting around 300-500 million people worldwide, killing more than 1 million people - predominately children. Yet, it is an epidemic that goes mostly unnoticed, perhaps because it is occurs at comfortable distance, being most common in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The illness is transmitted from infected to uninfected humans through the bite of an infected female Anopheles mosquito.

Global campaigns to eradicate malaria have been in place since the 1950s, but attempts have been mostly unsuccessful and the number of people dying from the disease is now higher than it was 30 years ago. This has mostly been due to high levels of resistance to drugs.

The realisation that new strategies are needed to combat the increase in malaria cases involved looking beyond traditional Western medicine. Artemisinin (also known as qing hao, sweet Annie and sweet wormwood), a herb used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2000 years, was finally accepted by western scientists in 2004. It was a large internationally run trial which led to the breakthrough of the anti-malarial. The trial showed that artesunate, derived from the Chinese herb, could cut malaria death by over a third.

However, artesunate and other ACTs are currently dangerous and expensive to produce, as well as being harmful to the environment. It is in the extraction process of the raw materials that the Bath team is leading the way for the future. Dr. Lapkin says "Our focus is on driving down the cost of extraction to help make this 'wonder drug' more readily available to the people who need it".

To learn more about the life cycle click on the image above

No comments: