Despite global efforts, there were an estimated 435,000 deaths from malaria in 2017, with 92 per cent of cases occurring in what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls the African region.
The WHO recommends that people with malaria are treated with Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACTs). ACTs are expensive because artemisinin, the main component, is naturally produced in small quantities by the medicinal plant Artemisia annua. Good quality seed for Artemisia annua is expensive and in short supply, making it a challenging and sometimes unprofitable crop for farmers to grow.
The challenge our researchers faced was firstly to increase the amount of artemisinin produced by Artemisia annua plants. Secondly, the challenge was producing enough low cost seed from these improved plants to meet the ongoing demand for ACTs.
This project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, started by understanding and then improving the biochemistry and genetics of Artemisia annua.
To do this, we analysed the best Artemisia annua plant varieties available, including the commercially available F1 hybrid Artemis and its parents as well as commercial varieties from growers in Africa and Asia.
The insights from this analysis were used in a fast-track plant breeding programme to develop robust F1 hybrid Artemisia varieties that generate excellent yields of the anti-malarial drug artemisinin.
We then worked with experienced Artemisia growers to test new hybrids in field trials across Africa and Asia to make sure that selected varieties were competitive and reliable in the areas where they would be grown commercially.
In addition, we partnered with international seed company East-West Seed, a leading tropical seed producer, to optimise methods for commercial-scale field-based Artemisia hybrid seed production for the first time.
We have made a significant impact on the availability of natural resources to tackle malaria.
Our new Artemisia F1 hybrid varieties combine outstanding seed production with high artemisinin content, excellent biomass and rapid establishment in the field. High-quality, low-cost Artemisia F1 hybrid seed has benefitted farmers and extractors in developing countries, with seed sales to African growers and extractors sufficient to produce up to 183m ACT treatments to date.
In addition to providing a reliable agricultural product, our Artemisia F1 hybrid varieties are sought after by other researchers. We interact with international researchers and Artemisia growers to share new scientific knowledge and freely provide access to elite Artemisia F1 hybrids to scientists researching next generation solutions to ensure future artemisinin availability.