Alumni in Profile / Nina Grove: Helping vanquish some of humanity's most vexing diseases

Nina Grove (photo by Jay Blakesberg)

Sitting in the San Francisco office of the Institute for OneWorld Health, Nina Grove faced a daunting task. She needed to find a way to manufacture, at a commercial scale, a semi-synthetic version of the drug artemisinin, which is used as part of a combination treatment for malaria.

Artemisinin is derived from the wormwood plant. Not only was it costly to produce, but vagaries of weather and supply meant the quantities needed to help fight a disease that kills more than a million people each year wasn't reliable.

In order to make the drug available to more people, Grove had to orchestrate a unique coalition that included a biotechnology startup, a UC Berkeley researcher, a philanthropic foundation, and a big drug company.

If anyone could do the job, it was Grove.

Grove, who graduated from Oakes College with a degree in biology in 1979, had spent 20 years at biotech giant Genentech, helping in the launch of four major drugs in less than 18 months: Avastin for colon cancer, Xolair for asthma, Tarceva for lung cancer, and Raptiva for psoriasis. It was there, she said, she learned how collaboration, mutual respect, and a goal-oriented process could bring stunning results.

She applied that same strategy to the Artemisinin Project.

"My job was to keep everybody moving forward toward a common goal in a collaborative way," Grove said.

With $42.6 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Grove shepherded the project to the point that the drug will soon be produced by the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis, and with government subsidies, should bring the cost of the combination treatment called ACT down to about $1 per patient.

"This unique approach is one of many that need to happen in the goal to eradicate malaria," said Grove, who also worked on a project to provide a low-cost treatment for the deadly disease visceral leishmaniasis, which is caused by the bite of a sand fly.

The daughter of Jewish immigrants who left Germany to escape the Holocaust, Grove is now taking time off to spend more time with her family and volunteer in her community, but then will look for her next project.

"I've always had the need to help other people," said the San Francisco resident, "and the most satisfying way I can do that relates to public health."

Her goal in life is simple.

"I want to leave the world a better place," she said.