updated 12/13/2004 12:40:39 PM ET 2004-12-13T17:40:39

Combating malaria has been one of the primary goals of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and its latest gift of $42.6 million will fund a nonprofit drug company’s high-tech take on an ancient Chinese remedy.

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Working with a biotechnology company, the San Francisco-based Institute for OneWorld Health will try to turn the genetic engineering efforts of Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkley into an inexpensive and effective drug to fight malaria in the third world. An announcement was expected Monday.

Keasling is developing a new way to manufacture artemisinin, which is made from finely ground wormwood plants. Chinese first extracted artemisinin from the sweet wormwood for medicinal use more than 2,000 years ago. Since then it has been applied to a variety of ailments, but the method is expensive, time consuming and limited by access to wormwood.

“The plant can’t supply a whole continent,” said Victoria Hale, OneWorld’s chief executive.

Keasling and his colleagues are trying to eliminate the need for the plant by splicing its chemical-producing genes and yeast genes into E. coli, ultimately coaxing artemisinin from this creation.

“I hope that UC Berkeley’s participation will serve as a model for other academic institutions to apply their scientific knowledge and resources to critical global health problems,” said Dr. Regina Rabinovich, director of infectious diseases at the Gates Foundation.

The foundation has donated nearly $300 million in malaria-related grants. The disease kills over a million people each year, most of them young children in Africa and Asia.

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