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Headlines Published on 01 March 2007

MAJOR DISEASES, ENVIRONMENT
Title 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.

Artemisinin has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine. © Matt+
Artemisinin has long been used in traditional Chinese medicine.
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 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 after use.

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.”







More information:

  • Journal of Natural Products, November 2006
  • Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV)
  • Innovative Medicines Initiative on Europa







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