Scientists have now successfully used bioengineering to design tobacco plants capable of producing antimalarial drugs. The plants produce large amounts of artemisinin, an important compound for treating malaria when commonly available medications fail. Previous methods of obtaining the drug were difficult and expensive. The details are in a paper that was just published in the journal Molecular Plant.
Malaria is a serious disease transmitted by mosquitoes that affects hundreds of millions of people globally each year. If not treated right away, the disease quickly becomes life-threatening. There are antimalarial drugs available but some malarial parasites are becoming resistant to commonly used medications. Artemisinin, a recently discovered compound, is very effective against malaria, including cases that fail to respond to other treatments. The compound is derived from a plant that’s difficult to grow and scientists have failed to synthesize the drug in the laboratory. These problems make artemisinin expensive and impractical to use as a baseline treatment.
Researchers from the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in India used bioengineering techniques to modify tobacco plants. The team edited certain biological pathways to create tobacco plants that reliably produced artemisinin compounds. Extracts from the leaves inhibited the growth of malarial parasites in infected blood cells. The team also tested oral doses on infected mice and found that it worked better than commercial available medications. Interestingly, whole plant cells were more effective than pure artemisinin. This means that plant-derived versions of the compound may be more useful than future synthetic drugs. The team is already planning to use the same techniques to develop lettuce plants that produce artemisinin.
The research team was successful in engineering plants to produce a potent antimalarial drug. The team’s findings should eventually lead to more affordable artemisinin medications. This has the potential to save many lives each year, especially as the drug becomes available in lower income regions.
Malhotra et al. Compartmentalized metabolic engineering for artemisinin biosynthesis and effective malaria treatment by oral delivery of plant cells. Molecular Plant (2016).