MAJOR DISEASES, ENVIRONMENT
In an era of rising environmental concerns, even meds are getting greener
As greenhouse gas emission targets are debated at EU level, Member States have been investigating novel approaches for reducing their consumption of fossil fuels. A partnership of public and private sector bodies from the UK and the Netherlands has come across a unique area for savings, i.e. antimalarial medication. Their motives were not exclusively environmental, however, as rising oil prices have increased the cost of some production techniques, causing researchers to re-examine the processes involved in making antimalarial drugs.
Research specialists in the UK were commissioned by the Dutch non-profit Medicines
for Malaria Venture (MMV), supported by the Dutch Government, to study the natural
malaria ‘wonder drug’ artemisinin. A majority of malaria patients treated with
Artemisinin-based Combination Treatments (ACTs) show clinical improvement within
24 hours. Artemisinin suppresses the malaria parasite’s ability to develop a resistance
to other drugs.
|Artemisinin has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine.
Artemisinin was first extracted from the herb Sweet
Wormwood by Chinese scientists in the 1980s, and large-scale production relies on a technique that uses hexane, a toxic and potentially explosive petroleum product. In 2005, MMV commissioned chemical engineers to investigate the option of a production technology less dependant on hexane, making production both cheaper and more environmentally friendly.
Research published in the Journal of Natural Products details three new extraction processes designed to supplant the need for hexane, and a recent grant from Dutch authorities will fund testing over the next 12 months by a consortium of European companies and universities.
“The intention for this project is to build a small-scale demonstrator
unit in Bath, and prove its viability by extracting artemisinin from Artemisia
annua plants grown in different countries and regions,“ says Dr Alexei Lapkin
from the University of Bath. “The project will also explore purification methods
of raw extracts to obtain material of good enough quality for pharmaceutical
companies to buy, for further processing into drug treatments.”
He adds that an increase in production efficiency and a reduced need for petroleum
should make the malaria medication more accessible: “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.”
Researchers have identified alternative solvents with faster extraction times
than hexane, such as supercritical carbon dioxide (scCO2), hydrofluorocarbon
134a (HFC-134a), ionic liquids (ILs) or ethanol. Not only are they safer for
technicians to handle, but they also have the potential for biodegradability
Dr Ian Bathurst, Director of Drug Discovery & Technology at MMV, notes that although
technology development is not normally the main focus of MMV, the scope of the
project was found to be particularly interesting.
He added that “developing technology that makes the extraction process as efficient and cost-effective as possible makes the mass production of artemisinin economically, environmentally and socially viable. This will have a significant impact on the new ACTs we are developing.”
Journal of Natural Products, November 2006
Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV)
Innovative Medicines Initiative on Europa