Max-Planck researchers are finding a way to get from the plant extract directly to the medication
Giang T. Vu is a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems in Magdeburg. You can tell by the glow on his face that he feels comfortable there. Several positive parameters at this place yield his four-leaved clover of luck.
Lucky leaf no. 1: Prof. Andreas Seidel-Morgenstern is his doctoral supervisor. Giang T. Vu has known the leader of the chair for chemical engineering since he did his masters degree at Otto-von-Guericke University.
Lucky leaf no. 2: Seidel-Morgenstern, also director of the MPI, brought his former student back from Vietnam to Magdeburg one year ago and now supervises his doctorate, which is on the subject “Extraction of Agents from Plants”. Because – and this is
Lucky leaf no. 3 – the scientist Seidel-Morgenstern and his group are doing research into a procedure which makes it possible to find a direct route from the plant extract to an ultrapure, finished medicine.
Luck leaf no. 4: the phytochemical in question is artemisinin, which is found in the leaves of a one-year-old Artemisia annua. In Germany, Artemisia is more known as a weed. In Vietnam, however, farmers in certain regions live off the cultivation of Artemisia. Artemisia contains a highly effective agent against malaria. In Vietnam, this disease is as good as eradicated. The 35-year-old Giang T. Vu no longer remembers the times when malaria was one of the dangerous widespread diseases in his home country. However, in Africa, malaria still claims hundreds of lives on a daily basis.
Most of the people suffering from malaria across the world are very poor. That is why the demand for qualitatively good, highly effective yet inexpensive medicine is high. There is also a high amount of media frenzy surrounding Andreas Seidel-Morgenstern and his colleague Peter Seeberger, director of the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam. In March this year, they were both awarded a prize for their groundbreaking work on the development of innovative methods for the production of anti-malarial medication. They travelled to New Orleans for this. “Humanity in Science”, the annual prize awarded for humanity in science, is sponsored by the specialist journal “The Analytical Scientist” and the separation technology manufacturer Phenomenex.
As it happens, the scientist from Magdeburg prefers to deal with his research than with interviews. On the other hand, making the contents of his research known to the wider public also lies close to his heart. He was recently invited to the “Wissenschaft im Rathaus” [science in the town hall] series of lectures in Magdeburg. Malaria is also an issue for avid travellers in this country. “And could also become something of interest for those who stay at home,” supposes Seidel-Morgenstern in light of climate changes – without wanting to invoke hysteria. Finally, it came to the research. “Its success,” stresses the scientist, “is the result of a professional collaboration”.
The MPI in Potsdam-Golm had developed a photoreactor, and his colleague Peter Seeberger succeeded in obtaining more artemisinin from a waste product of the extraction process via a continuous flow synthesis. “The people in Potsdam asked me whether we could develop continuous purification for it at the MPI in Magdeburg,” recalls Seidel-Morgenstern. “With the new procedure we developed together, the yield of the active agent from the plant can be doubled, thereby reducing the production costs.”
The new research network for synthetic biology, “MaxSynBio”, also focuses on professional collaboration. It is being financed by the Federal Ministry of Research together with the Max Planck Society and began in the spring of 2015. “Under the coordinated leadership of my colleague, Kai Sundmacher, the MPI in Magdeburg is an important node in the network. From an engineer’s perspective, we in Magdeburg are looking towards the possibility of constructing synthetic cells which imitate natural functions,” says the director of the MPI.
The cooperation between synthetic biochemistry and process engineering alone is of increasing significance for medicine, Seidel-Morgenstern believes. Together with his colleague from Potsdam, Seeberger, he was recently added to the “top 100” annual list of globally significant researchers and companies within the field of drug development by the British specialist journal “Medicine Maker”. “As basic researchers, we are still pioneers on this list. But others will follow,” says Seidel-Morgenstern, looking to the future.
Giang T. Vu looks towards a professional future in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government takes an interest in artemisinin research and is financing his doctoral stay in Saxony-Anhalt. If the process technician returns home in four years, he will be able to put the knowledge from his scientific work into practice. As, in the meantime, a private investor has been found in Vietnam, who would like to build a facility for the production of medication based on artemisinin.
Until it is ready, Giang T. Vu still feels that he is in good hands with Professor Seidel-Morgenstern, but for a different reason. The scientist (otherwise raised in Berlin) spent some years in Vietnam during his childhood and left in 1964. His father worked there as an interpreter. To this day, Seidel-Morgenstern has an emotional connection to Vietnam.
Giang T. Vu knows a lot about the Artemisia in his home country, but probably a lot less about the significance of the German four-leaf clover. But just having this mentor by his side is perhaps a fortune as rare as a fifth cloverleaf.
Author and photo: Kathrain Graubaum on behalf of IMG Saxony-Anhalt
Caption: Prof. Andreas Seidel-Morgenstern with the doctoral student Giang T. Vu from Vietnam (left) and Dr. Ju Weon Lee in the technical school of the MPI in Magdeburg. Dr. Lee from Korea was involved in the development of the procedure and co-authored publications about the extraction of artemisinin.