Synthetic biology scored a public-relations coup this month, when pharmaceutical giant Sanofi announced the start of commercial production of a "semisynthetic" version of artemisinin, the key ingredient of the principal anti-malarial compound. Up to now, arteminisin has been derived from the sweet wormwood plant.

The synthetic process was developed by Amyris, the company founded by University of California, Berkeley professor Jay Keasling, largely funded by the Gates Foundation, and licensed at no cost to Sanofi. The announcement was accompanied by a technical paper in Nature, emphasizing in the abstract that:

Because all intellectual property rights have been provided free of charge, this technology has the potential to increase provision of first-line antimalarial treatments to the developing world at a reduced average annual price.

Similarly, the Sanofi press release [pdf] stressed that:

Sanofi is committed to producing semisynthetic artemisinin using a no-profit, no-loss production model, helping to maintain a low price for developing countries.

Now, is that any way for a company with $43 billion in sales to act? Admittedly, the artemisinin market is a mere $90 million or so a year [pdf], so it's not like they're giving away all that much.

The publicity is priceless, but so is the loss-leader aspect. Keasling seems to have given the game away in Cambridge last week, saying that they expect to take over the entire global market, forcing the many small producers (mostly in China, also Vietnam and East Africa) to, ah, diversify their portfolios into wheat or potatoes. He told Nature:

I don't make the decision about what gets produced, the marketplace decides. What I do is provide more options.

Keasling made $17 million when Amyris went public; the company was built on this project. His dismissal of responsibility for the livelihoods of thousands of small farmers is reminiscent of Tom Lehrer's classic take on German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun [video]:

"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.

But this profitable piece of charity comes at major cost — for others:

Synthetic anti-malarial compound is bad news for artemisia farmers

That's the headline of a piece in The Guardian by Jim Thomas of the ETC Group, whose backgrounder on the whole subject is here. This was followed up by a press release from SynBioWatch, a coalition that includes the Center for Genetics and Society:

New "Semisynthetic" Anti-Malarial Drug is Unneeded and Sets Dangerous Precedent While Threatening Farmer Livelihoods.

These civil society responses need much more attention. Attempts to buy respectability for novel technologies — via greenwashing and related tactics — need to be exposed.

Which is not to say that there may not be useful results from synthetic techniques. Another synthetic biology advance was also touted last week: the ability to synthesize a vaccine against bird flu. This could save two weeks in a five-month production cycle, which sounds promising. The Centers for Disease Control and other U.S. agencies are working with Novartis and Craig Venter's Synthetic Genomics Vaccines Inc. to develop this process. Human safety trials may start later this year.

There is certainly room for discussion of this project and others envisioned by promoters of synthetic biology. That was the avowed intent of the recent Cambridge, UK, conference on "How will synthetic biology and conservation shape the future of nature?" The background paper [pdf] is a good resource, especially the extensive Endnotes. The conference itself has provoked some interesting, skeptical responses from Jim Thomas and Ed Gillespie. De-extinction was downplayed, it seems, though definitely mentioned. (See my article at Alternet on the use of "de-extinction" for PR purposes, as well as this post on semi-hidden human applications.)

And we have not heard the last of artemisinin. Keasling and other Amyris founders have started a nonprofit, Zagaya, which has won yet another Gates grant to investigate a lower-cost method of manufacturing artemisinin.

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