Researchers from Amyris, Inc. have recently published a study in Nature outlining a chemical method for producing artemisinin, a herbal drug that is one of the most powerful pharmaceuticals — and the most rapid-acting antimalarial — on the market. Until this discovery, drug makers were limited to harvesting the chemical from a type of sweet wormwood plant, severely limiting the availability of a potent medication.

The French drugmaker Sanofi is now expanding operations in an Italian factory to start mass producing the drug. They hope to produce 50-60 tons of the chemical a year, which will meet one-third of the global demand for antimalarial medication.

In the last 10 years the price of the plant that the key ingredient for the medication comes from has fluctuated greatly. Between 2003 and 2004, the chemical's price jumped from $100 a pound to almost $550. By 2007, artemisinin prices had gone down signifigantly but then two years later, prices almost doubled. This has made it difficult for drug makers to obtain enough of the raw material and actually have it be cost effective.

"It's the volatility that really makes the supply chain for this life-saving drug just a complete train wreck," Jack Newman, chief scientific officer of the California-based biotech firm Amyris which worked in collaboration with University of California, Berkeley told NPR.

The new process uses modified yeast cells that are grown in large vats and produce a precursor of the chemical called artemisinic acid which can then be easily converted into the anti-malarial artemisinin.

Malaria is a parasitic infection carried by mosquitos that caused 200 million cases and at least 655,000 deaths in 2010.