(NECN: Katelyn Tivnan) - Researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute are hoping the next phase of a two-year project involving a plant shows promise in the fight against malaria.
The plant is called artemisia annua and the goal is determine whether the plant has naturally-occurring anti-malarial properties.
Tucked between the tomatoes and flowers at small farm in Stow may lie the cure for one of the deadliest diseases plaguing developing countries.
This patch of artemisia annua may look like weeds but it could save hundreds of thousands of lives.
“When you dry the plant you get these crumbly leaves and we grind them up put them into tablets or capsules they work very well and don't have to add anything else to them,” says WPI biology professor Pamela Weathers.
Artemisinin is a drug that comes from the plant. It is used to treat malaria in third world countries.
The problem is it’s expensive to produce and often hard to get.
Weathers is studying the effect of ingesting the plant itself to treat the disease. With help from a federal grant, she's teamed up with friend Dwight Sipler who let her use his farm.
“Effort on the whole is worth it because it helps other people,” he says.
“These are the spurs that will produce the flowers and at this stage will produce the highest amount of drug,” Weathers says.
Once the plants are grown, they'll be dried and ground into a powder. That powder can be ingested and used to treat malaria, which is estimated to kill more than half a million people a year, most of them children.
“Estimated in an acre of land we could treat half a million people.”
The goal is to find the best growing method for producing the largest amount of the drug.
The plant has no toxic effect on humans, weathers wants to see clinical trials with children moving forward.
Weathers is hopeful this research could lead to more than just a cure for malaria.
“People who have malaria are very poor, can't afford drugs; most drugs are subsidized by the west; wouldn't it be great if they could grow and produce all of this themselves? They would have a socioeconomic stimulus.”