Biotech students learn about neglected diseases from alumna Nina Grove

UCSC alumna Nina Grove is vice president of commercial planning and director of the malaria program at the Insitute for OneWorld Health.

Nina Grove's interest in public health began when she took a year off from her studies at UC Santa Cruz to travel and ended up living in Nairobi, Kenya, where she volunteered at a school for disabled children. Now, as director of the malaria program at the Institute for OneWorld Health, Grove is involved in a unique public health project that is applying the tools of the biotechnology industry to the battle against one of the most devastating diseases in the developing world.

After graduating from UCSC (Oakes College) in 1979 with a degree in biology, Grove went on to earn master's degrees in public health and medical microbiology at UC Berkeley. Recently, she returned to UCSC to talk to students in Phillip Berman's "Biotechnology and Drug Development" class about her career and her current work at OneWorld Health, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company that develops drugs for people with infectious diseases in the developing world.

"She has one of the broadest backgrounds in biotechnology of anyone I know," said Berman, who chairs the Department of Biomolecular Engineering in UCSC's Baskin School of Engineering. "The students had expressed an interest in OneWorld Health, and I thought it would be interesting for them to meet someone who has had a terrifically interesting career in all areas of biotechnology, from research to management."

In her talk to Berman's class, Grove explained the "10/90 gap" that sums up the problem of neglected diseases: Only 10 percent of global health-related research and development funding is devoted to conditions that account for 90 percent of the global disease burden.

Malaria ranks third among the top neglected diseases in terms of the number of people affected. Every year, malaria causes between 300 and 500 million acute infections, and more than one million people (mostly children) die of the disease. At OneWorld Health, Grove manages a project that aims to ensure an adequate and affordable supply of what has emerged as the best available therapy for malaria.

The World Health Organization's recommended treatment for malaria is called artemesinin-based combination therapy (ACT). Artemesinin is an antimalarial drug derived from the wormwood plant (Artemesia annua). It is highly effective, and combining it with other drugs makes it harder for the malaria parasite to evolve resistance to artemesinin. "Resistance of the malaria parasite to commonly used drugs is a worsening problem," Grove explained.

But producing artemesinin requires cultivation, harvesting, and extraction processes that are time-consuming and labor-intensive. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, OneWorld Health has teamed up with UC Berkeley and Amyris Biotechnologies to develop a new, low-cost method to produce semisynthetic artemesinin using techniques originated by UC Berkeley chemical engineer Jay Keasling.

"This project is using the tools of synthetic biology to take a natural plant product and create a more consistent and reliable supply," Grove said. "Currently, the entire supply depends on the crops grown by farmers. We need an additional low-cost, nonseasonal source of high-quality artemesinin to meet the anticipated demand for ACTs for people in developing countries."

The project has much in common with Grove's previous work at the biotechnology company Genentech, where she spent 20 years in a variety of positions. Among other things, she worked with Berman on Genentech's AIDS vaccine project. In her most recent position as director of commercial regulatory affairs, she was responsible for the product launches of four new drugs for asthma, cancer, and psoriasis.

When she left Genentech, Grove was planning to take some time off. But then she learned about the Insitute for OneWorld Health and met its founder, Victoria Hale. In 2007, she was named vice president of commercial planning and director of the malaria program.

"The opportunity to apply my drug development skills to diseases of the developing world was very attractive to me," Grove said. "It's a new business model for drug development that relies on grant-based funding and removes the profit element in order to focus on the public health benefits."