What is Artemisinin? A Malaria-Fighting Medicine That May Be Able to Treat Cancer

Artemisinin saves lives from malaria; can it treat cancer patients too?

What is Artemisinin? A Malaria-Fighting Medicine That May Be Able to Treat Cancer

Source: The Amazing Healing Powers of Nature, Reader’s Digest


How artemisinin is used today

Hopefully, you are not one of the 200 million or so people who have contracted malaria in the past year. If you are, then chances are you will already have been prescribed an artemisinin-based medicine. It is worth noting that artemisinin is not used as a preventative medicine; so, if you are travelling to a malaria-affected region, check with your doctor for the most suitable protective medication.

What is malaria?

Malaria is an ancient disease that still affects hundreds of millions of people worldwide’and kills more than half a million every year. It is the result of infection by a single-celled parasite called Plasmodium, which is carried by mosquitoes. Plasmodium finds its way into people’s blood when carrier mosquitoes puncture the skin.

How is malaria treated?

Today’s most widely used and most effective treatment for malaria is artemisinin combination therapy (ACT), which, used correctly, should help to reduce the number of deaths from malaria for many years to come. The standard antimalarial combination therapy is Coartem, produced jointly by the pharmaceutical companies Novartis and Sanofi-Aventis, in partnership with the World Health Organization. Some strains of malaria have developed resistance to artemisinin and research into other malaria cures is ongoing.

Where does artemisinin come from?

Despite international efforts in the 1950s to eradicate malaria, the disease prevailed, mainly because some strains of Plasmodium developed resistance to the antimalarial medicines of the time, including quinine and chloroquine.

In 1969, using her knowledge of traditional medicine, a Chinese pharmacologist named Professor Tu Youyou identified an antimalarial compound in sweet wormwood, a plant native to Asia, that now grows around the world. That discovery, of the active ingredient artemisinin, has since become the source of a widely used, life-saving drug. Youyou received a 2015 Nobel Prize for her discovery.

The future of artemisinin: can artemisinin kill cancer cells?

In the future, artemisinin may have other important roles in medicine, too. Researchers in China have found that derivatives of the compound’the drugs artemether and artesunate’are effective against blood flukes, parasitic worms that cause the disease schistosomiasis (bilharzia), which is common in tropical developing nations. In the 1990s, scientists found that artemisinin can kill cancer cells in the laboratory’a finding that is still the subject of research.

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