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Pop!Tech - Jay Keasling's Microbes Are Changing the World
Robert Katz, 22 Oct 07
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October 20 -- Jay Keasling is the personification of creative destruction. Keasling is an award-winning scientist and the developer of an ultra low-cost source of artemisinin, the active ingredient in anti-malarial drugs. His company, Amyris Biotechnologies, engineers microbes that produce artemisinin at $0.25 per dose – down from $2.40 today.

So how is Keasling the personification of creative destruction? If you’re an artemisinin producer, Keasling’s success is going to put you out of business. And if you’re Acumen Fund – a lead investor in Advanced Bio-Extracts, an artemisinin producer – Keasling changes the return on investment equation.

Of course, creative destruction doesn’t happen tomorrow. ABE has a solid future, and the need for artemisinin far outstrips the supply and will for the foreseeable future. So Jacqueline Novogratz doesn’t have to worry – at least not yet.

artemisia.jpgWhy can ABE and Amyris co-exist? Frankly, the scale of the problem (malaria) makes it possible. The following are excerpts from an excellent article written by Lynn Yaris of the Lawrence Berkeley Lab:

According to the World Health Organization, each year nearly 500 million people living in the tropics and subtropics become infected with malaria, suffering burning fever and severe pain. An estimated one to three million victims die, most of them children.

Medical researchers have been unable to stamp out malaria, but effective antimalarial drugs have been discovered. The best of these is artemisinin and its derivatives, which are nearly 100 percent effective against all known strains of malaria. Artemisinin releases high doses of oxygen-based free radicals that destroy the Plasmodium parasite while it is inside a red blood cell. More than a million malaria patients have already been cured by artemisinin. But the cost of extracting the drug from wormwood trees, which only produce artemisinin under a narrow set of agricultural and climatological conditions, or of manufacturing it entirely through chemical synthesis, is so high that the impoverished populations suffering the most cannot afford it.

Keasling can chemically synthesize artemisinin. He feeds microbes sugar, and the microbes produce the drug - of course, it's way more complicated than that, a fact that Keasling makes light of in his presentation.

The result of his work is that the price of artemisinin is dropping - quickly. To take that price drop to market, Keasling partners with Amyris Biotechnologies and OneWorld Health. He does this without patents and without royalties - open-source pharma, if you will.

Unfortunately, when you open-source the development of artemisinin, you can't make a profit. And without a profit, most well-intentioned projects tend to fail. Keasling claims this can work without a profit, and I won't argue. But at the end of the day - in my opinion - all the well-intentioned ideas and projects in the world aren't going to cure malaria unless there's some money to be made.

So, Jacqueline, there's no need to worry, at least not yet.

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