The pharma farmers: can plant genetics bring us more affordable malaria medicines?

Pharma farmers The Artemisia plant is the sole source of a vital antimalarial drug

University of York

Malaria kills more than a million people every year and its victims are mainly young children. Because the malarial parasite has become immune to most medicinal treatments, the fight against this deadly disease now depends on a drug extracted from the aromatic herb Artemisia. However, the Artemisia plant only produces the drug in tiny amounts, making it too expensive for many in need.

The Centre for Novel Agricultural Products at the University of York is using the latest genetic technologies to fast track the plant breeding of Artemisia and increase plant output. ‘These new malaria drugs cost around ten times more than the drugs they are replacing,’ explains project leader Professor Dianna Bowles. ‘If we can double the plant’s yield of active ingredient, we will significantly reduce production costs.’

Thousands of plants are being screened for their drug yield and other useful features. This screening of traits is backed up by screening at the DNA level. ‘We can hunt through the plant’s genome,’ explains Dianna. ‘Picking out plants with genetic variation that might improve yield.’ Plants selected by this process will be used to breed new high-yielding, non-GM plant varieties that will help to make anti-malaria medicine more affordable.