Synthetic biology’s first malaria drug meets market resistance
When Paris-based pharmaceutical giant Sanofi started to sell malaria drugs made with the help of genetically engineered yeast in 2014, the move was hailed as a triumph for synthetic biology. The yeast was fermented in a vat to produce a chemical that Sanofi converted into artemisinin, which is used to make leading malaria treatments called artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). Many hoped that the process would offer a cheap and plentiful supply of drugs to tackle a disease that claims almost half a million lives worldwide every year.
Yet Sanofi produced no ‘semi-synthetic’ artemisinin (SSA) at all in 2015, Nature has learned. And the company is now selling the manufacturing site in Garessio, Italy, where it made its SSA.
That such celebrated drugmaking technology — developed with the help of US$64 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — stands idle illustrates the complicated web of economic forces that affects the market for malaria drugs. “This is a perfect example of how a new manufacturing process becomes extremely hard to scale up when there is a complex ecosystem of players,” says Prashant Yadav, a health-policy researcher at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who studies the ACT market.
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