What is Artemisinin?

Artemisinin is derived from a traditional Chinese medicinal herb called sweet wormwood (artemisia annua). It is a native plant of East Asia with yellow flowers and a fern-like leaf. In traditional medicine, sweet wormwood has been used to treat fever, headache, inflammation and infection. The extract known as artemisinin was discovered and developed specifically to treat malaria. Artemisinin derivatives have obtained medicine licences, and now, in specific combination with other drugs, it is the World Health Organisation’s recommended treatment regimen for uncomplicated malaria.

Artemisinin was discovered in the 1970s and since then has been studied widely for its anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties. Clinical trials have shown that artemisinin and its derivatives can selectively kill cancer tumour cells. Cancer cells are different from normal cells because they have a faster metabolism and consume a lot of iron. This is how they rapidly grow and multiply, resulting in the development of tumours. Artemisinin can identify and target the iron receptors on cancer cells, then attack and destroy the cell membranes while leaving healthy cells alone. This property of artemisinin is very exciting and has led to a lot of research to understand how best to use it.

What Types of Cancer Can be Treated?

Trials have been conducted in a range of cancers, looking at tumour cell death and prevention of tumour cell migration (metastasis). A large trial programme conducted by the US National Cancer Institute and published in 2001 investigated the effect of one of the artemisinin derivatives, artesunate, on 55 different cancer cell types. The research found that the most significant benefit was in leukaemia and colon cancers. Importantly, the artemisinin therapy was effective with leukaemia cells that were previously resistant to standard drug treatments. There was also a significant effect on melanomas, breast, ovarian, prostate, CNS and renal cancers. More recent studies have shown benefits in pancreatic and lung cancers, as well as confirming the previous results in multiple tumour types.

Success in Treatment-Resistant Cancers

Artemisinin has also been studied in metastatic and treatment-resistant cancers, with demonstrated benefits in limiting the progression of disease. Artemisinin has shown to be well tolerated and safe for use in a wide range of cancer patients, including radiotherapy-resistant breast cancer. There is some evidence that higher doses may be more effective, but this must always be balanced with the potential for side effects.

Is Artemisinin suitable for me?

Combination therapy, where artemisinin is used alongside conventional chemotherapies, has been shown to have a synergistic effect in patients being treated for lung, ovarian, pancreatic and liver cancers. Artemisinin is given as an IV therapy and can provide an extra layer of reassurance to your treatment plan. If you think it may be suitable for you, please speak with one of your medical team at Wellbeing Medical Group.