In the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, physicians observed a troubling trend a few years ago. A small number of patients who’d been treated for malaria were not responding to the standard medication. Some lapsed into severe malaria, an often fatal form of the disease.
In one clinic, 18 patients, aged 14 months to 60 years, lay seriously ill; among them, a five-year-old child who’d fallen into a coma. When intravenous drips of artesunate, the best drug for severe malaria, brought no improvement, one doctor decided on a last-ditch effort.
He began administering green tablets he’d recently received for use in a clinical trial. Five days later, every patient had fully recovered. What’s more, laboratory tests showed no evidence of parasites in their blood. Having been near death, 18 men, women, boys, and girls left the clinic and resumed their lives.
Those green tablets contained one simple ingredient: the dried, powdered leaves of a plant some consider a weed. The tablets were prepared by Pamela Weathers, professor of biology and biotechnology at WPI, who has been studying the plant, Artemisia annua, for more than four decades.
In that time her research has taken her from the lab to the front lines of a global health crisis. Today her work is helping fuel a quest to win recognition for the potential of Artemisia to help win the war against one of the world’s most deadly diseases.