Once known for expertise in growing tobacco, Kentucky is poised to become the epicenter of production of a similar plant that is used to cure malaria, called artemisia or sweet wormwood.
More than 650,000 people – mostly children – die from malaria every year around the world even though it is a treatable disease. The cure itself isn’t new; Chinese medicine described using artemisia in 200 B.C. and the modern Chinese scientist who discovered how it works shared a Nobel Prize for medicine in 2015.
The plants produce a molecule called artemisinin that can cure malaria for only a few dollars a box. But that’s still too expensive for most of the people in the world at risk for getting the mosquito-borne disease, said Kerry Gilmore, who is running a research team at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, that has figured out a way to make the medicine much more efficiently and cheaply.
“We make a tea, do an extraction, and take that crude solution that has medicine in it with chlorophyll and put into the reactor and we can now more efficiently convert more to artemisisin,” Gilmore said. “We get more out of the plant without having to add any expensive component. It’s cheaper, more green, and it’s so efficient that we can convert up to 100 times the amount found naturally. We can now produce more artemisinin than ever before. ... That’s what we’re going to be doing in Kentucky.”
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“We came to Kentucky actually because this crop has been grown in test facilities in places like West Virginia, where there is a similar climate. One of the people on the team was familiar with Kentucky and (Kentucky) House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell … and recommended looking at Kentucky,” Gilmore said. Shell, who also a farmer, encouraged them to come to here.
The goal is to be producing medication within three years, Gilmore said.
Gilmore is hoping that Kentucky farmers can grow thousands of acres of artemisia to be processed into medicine. And the company formed to commercialize the process, ArtemiFlow, is looking to build a plant to produce the medicine.
Altogether the project is expected to cost at least $30 million and create about 200 jobs, he said. ArtemiFlow is in discussions with several agencies and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on funding.
“ArtemiFlow has been in Kentucky multiple times, where I directed them to agriculture experts, as well as officials with the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development, so they could share their vision that could greatly impact Kentucky’s agriculture industry and potentially bring hundreds of jobs here,” Shell said in a statement. “I am proud that Kentucky is playing such a large role in the fight against a plague that disproportionally affects children across the globe.”
The researchers in Germany are working with the Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center at the University of Kentucky to hone in on the best practices for growing artemisia. Right now, a greenhouse on UK’s Spindletop Farm is growing seedlings in float trays, while other plants are being transplanted for evaluation. Field trials will begin in warmer weather.
The growing process, said Orlando Chambers, director of the center, is very similar to that Kentucky farmers used for burley tobacco. The plants even have to be dried before the chemical can be extracted.
“One of our missions is evaluation, to do field testing. We’re collecting seeds and germplasm, will grow them in the greenhouse and then try them in the field,” Chambers said. “We’re looking for plants that grow the most artemisinin. It’s about collecting different plants and evaluating which grow best in Kentucky.”
Most of the existing artemisia crop is grown in Asia but moving large-scale production to Kentucky should stabilize supply and could give Kentucky farmers another lucrative crop.
“The core of this whole thing is farming; if you don’t do that right it doesn’t work. We feel confident that we can do that in Kentucky,” Gilmore said. “And it will be easier and cheaper, with more and better quality material.”
Gilmore has already scouted Central Kentucky and has discussed contracting with farmers to grown about 7,000 acres initially and double that amount every few years as production increases, he said.
“We’ll go from plant to pill in one place to have the most efficient process and the cheapest means of manufacture these medicines,” he said.
And he added, “We’re going to be able to give a fair and good salary to the farmers per acre. And because of the efficiency with the entire supply chain in one location, we know we’ll be able to produce and sell for less than currently available. And we won’t be bankrupt.”
Artemisinin also is being investigated by medical researchers as a promising way to treat several cancers — including cervical, colorectal and breast — and even diabetes, Gilmore said. He and his team have met with representatives of UK’s Markey Cancer Center on pursuing clinical efforts here.
Researchers in Germany are coming to Kentucky to work out how to grow it best. They are working with the UK tobacco researchers on best growth practices and hope to begin scaling up to thousands of acres next year.
Ling Yuan, one of the UK researchers testing artemisia plants at the tobacco research center, is excited about the potential for widespread use.
“If that’s proven, and it’s still going to require lot of research, then (growing artemsia) could be a pretty significant industry,” Yuan said.