Nav: Home

Tobacco plants engineered to manufacture high yields of malaria drug

October 20, 2016

In 2015, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded in part for the discovery of artemisinin, a plant-derived compound that's proven to be a lifesaver in treating malaria. Yet many people who need the drug are not able to access it, in part because it's difficult to grow the plant that is the compound's source. Now, research has shown that tobacco plants can be engineered to manufacture the drug at therapeutic levels. The study appears October 20 in Molecular Plant.

"Artemisinin treats malaria faster than any other drug. It can clear the pathogen from the bloodstream within 48 hours," says senior author Shashi Kumar, of the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi, India. "Our research is focused on finding a way to make this drug available to more people."

Malaria infects more than 200 million people every year, according to the World Health Organization, and kills more than 400,000, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia. The majority of those who live in malaria-stricken areas cannot afford to buy artemisinin. The drug's high cost is due to the extraction process and largely to the fact that it's difficult to grow Artemisia annua (sweet wormword), the plant that is the original source of the drug, in climates where malaria is common, such as in India. Advances in synthetic biology have made it possible to produce the drug in yeast, but the manufacturing process is difficult to scale up.

Earlier studies looked at growing the compound in tobacco--a plant that's relatively easy to genetically manipulate and that grows well in areas where malaria is endemic. But yields of artemisinin from those plants were low.

In the current paper, Kumar's team reports using a dual-transformation approach to boost the production of artemisinin in the tobacco plants: they first generated plants that contained transgenic chloroplasts, and the same plants were then manipulated again to insert genes into the nuclear genome as well. "We rationalized the expression of biosynthetic pathway's gene in different compartment that enabled us to reach the maximum yield from the double transgenic plants," he says.

Extract from the plants was shown to stop the growth progression of pathogen-infected red blood cells in vitro. Whole cells from the plant were also fed to mice infected with Plasmodium berghei, one of the microbes that causes malaria. The plant product greatly reduced the level of the parasite in the blood. In fact, the researchers found, the whole plant material was more effective in attacking the parasite than pure artemisinin, likely because encapsulation inside the plant cells protected the compound from degradation by digestive enzymes.

But Kumar and his colleagues acknowledge that convincing people to eat tobacco plants is likely to be a hard sell. For that reason, he is collaborating with Henry Daniell, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study's coauthors, with a plan to genetically engineer lettuce plants for producing artemisinin. The lettuce containing the drug can then be freeze dried, ground into a powder, and put into capsules for cost-effective delivery.

"Plant and animal science are increasingly coming together," Kumar says. "In the near future, you will see more drugs produced inside plants will be commercialized to reduce the drug cost."
This research was funded by the Department of Biotechnology and Department of Science, part of the Government of India, as well as the NIH.

Molecular Plant, Malhotra et al: "Compartmentalized metabolic engineering for artemisinin biosynthesis and effective malaria treatment by oral delivery of plant cells."

Molecular Plant, published by Cell Press for the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and Chinese Society of Plant Biology, is a monthly journal that focuses broadly on plant science, including cellular biology, physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, development, plant-microbe interaction, genomics, bioinformatics, and molecular evolution. Visit: To receive Cell Press media alerts, please contact

Cell Press

Related Malaria Articles:

Breakthrough in malaria research
An international scientific consortium led by the cell biologists Volker Heussler from the University of Bern and Oliver Billker from the Umeå University in Sweden has for the first time systematically investigated the genome of the malaria parasite Plasmodium throughout its life cycle in a large-scale experiment.
Scientists close in on malaria vaccine
Scientists have taken another big step forward towards developing a vaccine that's effective against the most severe forms of malaria.
New tool in fight against malaria
Modifying a class of molecules originally developed to treat the skin disease psoriasis could lead to a new malaria drug that is effective against malaria parasites resistant to currently available drugs.
Malaria expert warns of need for malaria drug to treat severe cases in US
The US each year sees more than 1,500 cases of malaria, and currently there is limited access to an intravenously administered (IV) drug needed for the more serious cases.
Monkey malaria breakthrough offers cure for relapsing malaria
A breakthrough in monkey malaria research by two University of Otago scientists could help scientists diagnose and treat a relapsing form of human malaria.
Getting to zero malaria cases in zanzibar
New research led by the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, Ifakara Health Institute and the Zanzibar Malaria Elimination Program suggests that a better understanding of human behavior at night -- when malaria mosquitoes are biting -- could be key to preventing lingering cases.
Widely used malaria treatment to prevent malaria in pregnant women
A global team of researchers, led by a research team at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM), are calling for a review of drug-based strategies used to prevent malaria infections in pregnant women, in areas where there is widespread resistance to existing antimalarial medicines.
Protection against Malaria: A matter of balance
A balanced production of pro and anti-inflammatory cytokines at two years of age protects against clinical malaria in early childhood, according to a study led by ISGlobal, an institution supported by ''la Caixa'' Foundation.
The math of malaria
A new mathematical model for malaria shows how competition between parasite strains within a human host reduces the odds of drug resistance developing in a high-transmission setting.
Free malaria tests coupled with diagnosis-dependent vouchers for over-the-counter malaria treatment
Coupling free diagnostic tests for malaria with discounts on artemisinin combination therapy (ACT) when malaria is diagnosed can improve the rational use of ACTs and boost testing rates, according to a cluster-randomized trial published this week in PLOS Medicine by Wendy Prudhomme O'Meara of Duke University, USA, and colleagues.
More Malaria News and Malaria Current Events

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2019.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Why do we revere risk-takers, even when their actions terrify us? Why are some better at taking risks than others? This hour, TED speakers explore the alluring, dangerous, and calculated sides of risk. Guests include professional rock climber Alex Honnold, economist Mariana Mazzucato, psychology researcher Kashfia Rahman, structural engineer and bridge designer Ian Firth, and risk intelligence expert Dylan Evans.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#541 Wayfinding
These days when we want to know where we are or how to get where we want to go, most of us will pull out a smart phone with a built-in GPS and map app. Some of us old timers might still use an old school paper map from time to time. But we didn't always used to lean so heavily on maps and technology, and in some remote places of the world some people still navigate and wayfind their way without the aid of these tools... and in some cases do better without them. This week, host Rachelle Saunders...
Now Playing: Radiolab

Dolly Parton's America: Neon Moss
Today on Radiolab, we're bringing you the fourth episode of Jad's special series, Dolly Parton's America. In this episode, Jad goes back up the mountain to visit Dolly's actual Tennessee mountain home, where she tells stories about her first trips out of the holler. Back on the mountaintop, standing under the rain by the Little Pigeon River, the trip triggers memories of Jad's first visit to his father's childhood home, and opens the gateway to dizzying stories of music and migration. Support Radiolab today at