Artemisinin is a chemical compound extracted from the wormwood plant, Artemisia annua L., that has traditionally been used as a treatment for malaria caused by parasites. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute’s Developmental Therapeutic Program have discovered that artemisinin may also be effective at destroying cancer cells that store high concentrations of iron, while leaving normal and healthy cells undamaged. Artemisinin carries an endoperoxide moiety that forms powerful free radicals in the presence of high iron, which helps to destroy the cancer cell membranes. It has been found to have anti-cancer activity against 55 cancer cell lines, and has shown to be particularly effective against leukemia, colon, lung, and breast cancer, including radiation-resistant breast cancer.
Artemisinin therapy has been found to hold unique properties which selectively attack cancer cells while leaving normal and healthy cells undamaged. It is activated by iron, which cancer cells accumulate as it is crucial for their rapid growth and proliferation. Most cancer cells have high rates of iron intake and express a high concentration of transferrin receptors on the cell surface. There seems to be a correlation between the aggressiveness of the tumour and the number of these iron receptors. Artemisinin has a peroxide bond that is activated by iron in order to generate hydrogen peroxide. This free radical of Oxygen stresses cancer cells, which are deficient in peroxide-neutralizing catalase enzyme. Normal cells with catalase can harmlessly dissipate the peroxides. Healthy cells are approximately 100 times less vulnerable to dying from artemisinin than cancer cells.