German researchers announced Tuesday they had discovered a process to make the most effective anti-malaria drug cheaper and easier to produce in large life-saving quantities.
The breakthrough offers hope to the more than 200 million malaria sufferers worldwide, especially in poor countries, by making artemisinin more affordable, the Max Planck Society said.
"There is an effective treatment against malaria but it is not accessible to all of the more than 200 million people worldwide who are affected by the disease," it said in a written statement.
"Millions, especially in the developing world, cannot afford the combination drug preparation, which consists mainly of artemisinin," it added.
In addition, it said the medication's price varied because of the seasonal nature of the basic ingredient which mainly grows in China and Vietnam.
Chemists at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in the eastern city of Potsdam and Berlin's Free University have developed a way to synthesise the artemisinin molecule using oxygen and light.
"The production of the drug is therefore no longer dependent on obtaining the active ingredient from plants," one of the two researchers, Peter Seeberger, said in the statement.
They started by using artemisinic acid which can easily be produced in genetically modified yeast and converted it into artemisinin in a single step using a simple apparatus.
This enables "the production of large volumes of the substance under very controlled conditions", Seeberger said.
The researchers said they had overcome one problem by not carrying out the synthesis as a "one-pot reaction".
Instead, they used a continuous-flow reactor producing a solution after four and a half minutes in which 40 percent of the artemisinic acid had become artemisinin.
"We assume that 800 of our simple photoreactors would suffice to cover the global requirement for artemisinin," Seeberger said, adding that the synthesis process could be ready for technical use in six months.
Malaria caused the death of an estimated 655,000 people in 2010, with 86 percent of victims children aged under five, the World Health Organisation said last month.