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 Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'
16.03.2018 | Emory Health Sciences

nachricht Scientists map the portal to the cell's nucleus
16.03.2018 | Rockefeller University

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>