From the lab to the factory floor

When scientists at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) found a way to genetically engineer yeast to produce artemisinic acid, a precursor to artemisinin, they knew their discovery had the potential to fulfill a critical global health need. Global demand for artemisinin-based drugs has increased since the World Health Organization identified artemisinin-based combination therapies as the most effective malaria treatment available, and the botanical supply (derived from the sweet wormwood plant) has struggled to keep pace. Nine years ago, using UCB’s discovery, we set out to reinforce artemisinin production by creating a complementary source.

In order to take on this monumental task, we needed a strong, dedicated, and dependable group of partners. UCB, Amyris, Inc., OneWorld Health (now PATH’s Drug Development program), and Sanofi aligned their biochemistry knowledge, global health expertise, and manufacturing savvy to lead the project from the research to commercialization phase. Partners worked together to refine the production process for semisynthetic artemisinin, set the stage for speedy regulatory approval, and ready the product for commercial distribution.

Through our collaboration, we succeeded in moving a synthetic biology innovation from the lab to the factory floor, launching industrial production of semisynthetic artemisinin in Northern Italy this spring. Having multiple sources of high-quality artemisinin will mean a steady global supply, stable price, and ultimately, greater availability of treatment to people suffering from malaria.

Advancing the product required willingness to take risks and work together across different institutional cultures, putting aside differences and focusing on the common mission of malaria eradication. It also required keeping one ear to the ground to develop a product that would be user-driven and readily incorporated into the supply chain.

The success of the partnership demonstrates that with a shared humanitarian goal—and the flexibility and perseverance of a dedicated team—collaboration across sectors can advance science to make a real impact in global health.