Over the past years, Seeberger has succeeded in developing a cost-effective, large-scale method of producing artemisinin, currently the most effective active ingredient in fighting malaria. He is still working on his long-term goal of developing a malaria vaccine that would prevent the disease.
Artemisinin production is not Seeberger’s only medical project. He also works closely with Charité-Universitätsmedizin, the joint medical school operated by Freie Universität and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where he is personally responsible for six research projects that could lead to spin-offs. Seeberger enjoys charting his own course for his work, and he pushes ahead ambitiously and tirelessly with his research.
After six years at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, Seeberger’s path brought him to Berlin in 2009. The opportunity to work simultaneously at Freie Universität Berlin and the Max Planck Institute convinced him to make the shift. He considers Freie Universität “better than most American universities.” He enjoys its bottom-up structure and points out that he has a lot of freedom in his research both at the university and at the MPI. “Curiosity and not taking things at face value” is Seeberger’s definition of the inventive spirit.
Seeberger has been pushing to produce vaccines at low cost, thereby offering help for the world’s poorest people, since his days working on fundamental chemistry research, in the late 1990s. Using automated methods of synthesis, he was able to produce an innovative synthetic vaccine candidate back then, ahead of its time. “In animal trials, the malaria vaccine was one hundred percent efficient,” Seeberger says. But then the work hit a snag: Big companies he had worked with during the research did not want to publish the data. Seeberger takes a realistic view. “Research that benefits poor people and poor countries first and foremost always takes a bit longer, unfortunately.”
But he is sticking with it, and as of late last year he was able to report success in synthetic production of the active ingredient artemisinin. He and his team have managed to construct a cost-effective reactor that does not require a high material outlay. The reactor can be used to perform a photochemical process to synthesize the artemisinin molecule, with its intricate chemical structure. Previously, the sole source of artemisinin, a malaria drug known from traditional Chinese medicine, was the Artemisia annua plant. To synthesize it, Seeberger uses an acid that remains as a waste product in the traditonal process.
Each reactor, he says, can produce one ton of artemisinin – equivalent to one percent of global demand. “We assume that 800 of our simple photoreactors are enough to meet the worldwide demand for artemisinin,” Seeberger says. And that would mean tremendous downward pressure on prices, “since as things stand today, many of the more than 500 million malaria patients worldwide cannot afford the drug.” Seeberger has also taken another step ahead of vaccination: He has teamed up with an Ethiopian colleague to establish the Hope for Africa Foundation. Its first project is a factory where Ethiopians produce mosquito nets for people’s beds. As Seeberger says, “If you don’t get bitten, you don’t get sick.”