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Grass looking greener for malaria patients

The frontline malaria treatment artemisinin could soon be treating more people for less cost, thanks to a research collaboration between Bradford and Shanghai.

Artemisinin is the leading treatment on the market able to combat drug-resistant strains of malaria, but a more efficient form of the drug is urgently needed. The active ingredient is just 1 per cent of the plant and when taken in tablet form, poor solubility means that the amount of the drug absorbed into the bloodstream can be as low as 20%.

As an extract of a grass grown mainly in China and Vietnam, artemisinin is also vulnerable to poor harvests, changing agricultural practices and natural disasters. Stocks were devastated in 2008 by the Sichuan Earthquake.

Now, however, experts in drug design and delivery from the University of Bradford are working with scientists from Jilin University and the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica to create a version of the drug that retains more of the active ingredient during manufacture and can be taken up more easily by the body.

‘Our research is focusing on making the best and most effective use of the stocks of artemisinin that are available to us,’ explains Professor Peter York, who is leading the project at Bradford.

‘While other research groups are looking at modifying the plant or synthesizing the drug to overcome the problems of supply, we want to ensure we are able to create a medicine that works efficiently at minimum dosage, wherever the supply comes from.’

Because artemisinin is very sensitive to oxidization and heat, a proportion of the valuable active ingredient is lost with traditional solvent-based extraction methods. The team will use a drug manufacturing process developed at Bradford, called the Super Critical Fluid (SCF) process, which is carried out at low temperatures and is more benign than conventional extraction methods.

The researchers believe that larger amounts of artemisinin will be retained using this method of manufacture. The research will also look at ways to improve the rate of solution and absorption of artemisinin through the SCF process, by modifying the size and form of the drug particles and possibly incorporating hydrophilic polymer into the drug particles.

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