Artemisinin: Treating Malaria and Cancer Research

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Artemisinin, also called sweet wormwood could help with malaria and in cancer cures.

Artemisinin (pronounced ar-te-MIS-in-in), also called sweet wormwood is an herb mainly grown in China and Vietnam with test projects now in India and Tanzania. The plant is started new each year from seed and only produces artemisinin under certain agriculture and climate conditions, it takes eight months to mature. Artemisinin is an antimalerial herb extracted from the leaves of the artemsisia annua plant. It was an ancient Chinese remedy (qing hao su) and rediscovered by Chinese researches that isolated artemisinin in 1972.

Artemisinin acts quickly against the malaria parasite and it quickly reduces fever and has few if any side effects like other drugs. It also lowers the number of the malaria parasites in the blood stream, which helps to contain small outbreaks from becoming an epidemic. In 1991 there was a malaria epidemic in Vietnam, the use of artemisinin reduced the death rate by 97%. Artemisinin is taken along with other drugs to reduce the risk of drug resistance malaria. With artemisinin, a “cocktail” of drugs is taken with the drugs lumefantrine and artemether and is marketed as Coartem. Coartem is the leading artemisinin based treatment for malaria in the world.

Outside of the United States artemisinin is the number one herb for fighting malaria. At this time the Federal Drug Administration of the US has not approved the use of artemisinin or the drug Coartem. In December 2008, an FDA panel said that clinical studies showed that the drug company Novartis’ anti-malarial drug was safe and effective.

Malaria is still very prevalent around the world, in 2006 alone there were 247 million cases of malaria and 880,000 deaths in 109 different countries. Artemisinin is the best drug, especially against drug resistant malaria and has an almost 100% effectiveness rate against the parasite. At a price of about $2.20 per adult course, the drug is still out of reach for millions of affected people. With a large grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the OneWorld Health Institute formed a funded research collaboration known as the Artemisinin Project at the University of California at Berkley to develop semi-synthetic artemisinin.

How it works

Chloroquine and sulphadoxine-pyrimethamine have been the usual remedy for malaria until more recently when malaria has become resistant to these treatments. It is still not completely clear how it works. One theory is artemisinin clears parasites from the infected red-blood cells by interacting with iron rich debris from red blood cells as the parasite replicates throughout the body. This interaction then unleashes free radicals that go on to kill the malaria parasites.

Another theory now states that artemisinin works by blocking the action of an enzyme called PfaTP6 that is important for pumping calcium in and out of red blood cells. It is believed that PfaTP6 is exclusive to the malaria parasite as the activator of its pump.

Cancer research for artemisinin

Recent studies are showing that artemisinin could be effective against leukemia, breast cancer, colon cancer and also other cancers. Its use to kill malaria parasite is by the chemical reaction to the high iron concentration in malaria. Artemisinin, when in contact with iron creates free radicals that break apart and kill the parasite. The relation to cancer is this, malaria is high in iron, cancer cells require iron to replicate and cancer cells have much higher iron concentrations than normal cells. Researches are hoping this can be that magic bullet that kills cancer cells while not harming surrounding healthy cells.

Research on artemisinin and cancer is still in the very early stages and taking it should be done with extreme caution and medical direction.

Sam Montana © 12 January 2009

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