Image credit: Hljod.Huskona/Flickr
Around the world, fighting malaria has become a race to treat afflicted patients before the disease, caused by a microorganism that lives blood, can become resistant to the regimens. Currently, the most effective treatment is based on Artemisia annua, commonly known as sweet wormwood, which has been naturalized in countries where malaria is endemic.
The problem is that Artemisia annua tends to be a low-yield plant, making it an unprofitable crop for farmers and a scarce resource for drug makers. New research, however, may change that.By mapping the genes of the plant species, researchers at the University of York have been able to select traits leading to higher yielding plants. Their hybrids maximize the number of artemisinin producing glands on each leaf.
Currently, the seeds are being planted in trial groups in China, East Africa, India and Madagascar. In the end, the team hopes to develop different hybrids, each tailored to the specific growing conditions of the area in which it will be planted.
Professor Ian Graham, who led the research, explained:
Our aim is to have hybrid seeds that can be released to farmers in the developing world by 2011 or 2012. With a year lag for planting, this would have an impact on supply in 2012 or 2013...we have to wait six to eight months from putting the seed in the ground to harvesting the crop and seeing how it has performed.
If the research, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is successful, it would help manufacturers get a larger supply of the vital drug on the market, ultimately lowering the price.
Dr Chris Drakeley, director of the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, commented that:
We have a window of time when we can use artemisinin effectively, and we want to have a stable, reliable supply that can be used in that window.
To facilitate such an effort, the research team is making all of its data and tools available for free for non-profit use.
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