Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Anti-malaria drug synthesised with the help of oxygen and light

In future it should be possible to produce the best anti-malaria drug, artemisinin, more economically and in sufficient volumes for all patients

The most effective anti-malaria drug can now be produced inexpensively and in large quantities. This means that it will be possible to provide medication for the 225 million malaria patients in developing countries at an affordable price.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam and the Freie Universität Berlin have developed a very simple process for the synthesis of artemisinin, the active ingredient that pharmaceutical companies could only obtain from plants up to now. The chemists use a waste product from current artemisinin production as their starting substance. This substance can also be produced biotechnologically in yeast, which the scientists convert into the active ingredient using a simple yet very ingenious method.

There is an effective treatment against malaria, but it is not accessible to all of the more than 200 million people worldwide who are affected by the disease. Millions, especially in the developing world, cannot afford the combination drug preparation, which consists mainly of artemisinin. Moreover, the price for the medication varies, as this substance is isolated from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua) which grows mainly in China and Vietnam, and varies seasonally in its availability. To make the drug affordable for at least some patients in developing countries, the Clinton Foundation, for example, subsidises its cost to the tune of several million dollars per year. Nevertheless, over one million people die of malaria each year because they do not have access to effective drugs.

This may be about to change. Peter H. Seeberger, Director at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam and Professor of Chemistry at the Freie Universität Berlin and his colleague François Lévesque have discovered a very simple way of synthesising the artemisinin molecule, which is known as an anti-malaria drug from traditional Chinese medicine and has an extremely complex chemical structure. “The production of the drug is therefore no longer dependent on obtaining the active ingredient from plants,” says Peter Seeberger.

Synthesis from a by-product of artemisinin production

As a starting point, the chemists use artemisinic acid – a substance produced as a hitherto unused by-product from the isolation of artemisinin from sweet wormwood, which is produced in volumes ten times greater than the active ingredient itself. Moreover, artemisinic acid can easily be produced in genetically modified yeast as it has a much simpler structure. “We convert the artemisinic acid into artemisinin in a single step,” says Peter Seeberger. “And we have developed a simple apparatus for this process, which enables the production of large volumes of the substance under very controlled conditions.” The only reaction sequence known up to now required several steps, following each of which the intermediate products had to be isolated laboriously – a method that was far too expensive to offer as a viable alternative to the production of the drug from plants.

The striking simplification of artemisinin synthesis required not only a keen sense for an elegant combination of the correct partial reactions to enable the process to take place in a single step; it also took a degree of courage, as the chemists departed from the paths typically taken by industry up to now. The effect of the molecule, which not only targets malaria but possibly also other infections and even breast cancer, is due to, among other things, a very reactive chemical group formed by two neighbouring oxygen atoms – which chemists refer to as an endoperoxide. Peter Seeberger and François Lévesque use photochemistry to incorporate this structural element into the artemisinic acid. Ultraviolet light converts oxygen into a form that can react with molecules to form peroxides.

800 photoreactors should suffice to cover the global requirement for artemisinin

“Photochemistry is a simple and cost-effective method. However, the pharmaceutical industry has not used it to date because it was so difficult to control and implement on a large scale,” explains Peter Seeberger. In the large reaction vessels with which industrial manufacturers work, flashes of light do not penetrate deeply enough from outside and the reactive form of oxygen is not produced in sufficient volumes. The Potsdam-based scientists have succeeded in resolving this problem using an ingenious trick: They channel the reaction mixture containing all of the required ingredients through a thin tube that they have wrapped around a UV lamp. In this structure, the light penetrates the entire reaction medium and triggers the chemical conversion process with optimum efficiency.

“The fact that we do not carry out the synthesis as a one-pot reaction in a single vessel, but in a continuous-flow reactor enables us to define the reaction conditions down to the last detail,” explains Peter Seeberger. After just four and a half minutes a solution flows out of the tube, in which 40 percent of the artemisinic acid has become artemisinin.

“We assume that 800 of our simple photoreactors would suffice to cover the global requirement for artemisinin,” says Peter Seeberger. And it could all happen very quickly. Peter Seeberger estimates that the innovative synthesis process could be ready for technical use in a matter of six months. This would alleviate the global shortage of artemisinin and exert considerable downward pressure on the price of the associated drugs.


Prof. Dr. Peter H. Seeberger
Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces, Potsdam
Phone: +49 331 567-9301
Fax: +49 331 567-9102
Original publication:
François Lévesque and Peter H. Seeberger
Continuous-Flow Synthesis of the Anti-Malaria Drug ArtemisininOptional link
Angewandte Chemie international edition, 17 January 2012; DOI: 10.1002/anie.201107446

Prof. Dr. Peter H. Seeberger | Max-Planck-Institut
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Novel mechanisms of action discovered for the skin cancer medication Imiquimod
21.10.2016 | Technische Universität München

nachricht Second research flight into zero gravity
21.10.2016 | Universität Zürich

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>