“Sweet wormwood” and “mugwort” are just two of the many nicknames for the herb Artemisia annua. It’s a pretty little plant, with fern-like leaves and bright yellow flowers. Though this particular species is native to Asia, there are many other Artemisia species (not medicinal) in gardens across America—mine included.
But you’ll more likely find the Artemisia annua variety in research labs than in gardens, and for good reason. Not only has the plant played a prominent role in the treatment of malaria for over 30 years, it also shows significant promise as a cancer drug. Here’s why…
Is Fire in The Belly Slowly &
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The silver-leafed cancer assassin
An extract of Artemisia annua called artemisinin — along with its derivatives — make up a group of fast-acting drugs when it comes to treating malaria—faster than all the other current drugs for the disease. On a chemical level, artemisinin has something called a “peroxide bridge” which is responsible for the way the drug works.
Its success against malaria has led to quite a bit more promising research on the herbal extract. Artemisinin compounds demonstrate anti-angiogenic, anti-inflammatory, anti-metastasis, and growth-inhibition effects on cancer cells in lab dishes. Put all those properties together and you’ll understand why artemisinin compounds are hugely attractive as cancer drug candidates.
Another unique thing about artemisinin is that it reacts strongly with iron. When this happens, cancer-cell-killing free radicals form. Cancer cells respond to the herb because they tend to contain a lot more intracellular free iron than do normal cells.
This is one of the reasons artemisinin prompts apoptosis (natural cell death) in several cancer cell lines. Since it’s relatively easy to ramp up the iron content inside cancer cells in vivo (i.e. in living animals or humans), the thinking is that artemisinin-style drugs combined with iron-enhancing compounds could make for a simple, economical, and effective cancer treatment.
The mechanism works something like this: Cancer cells use iron to grow, so they tend to horde it (malaria parasites do as well). Cancer cells have been known to store up to a thousand times as much iron as normal cells. When Artemisia plant extracts come into contact with iron, their two joined oxygen atoms separate. This chemical reaction leads to free radicals, which are essentially charged atoms that attack cells. It’s like artemisinin contains a tripwire that cancer cells trigger, leading to their death.
The natural thing to assume then, is that artemisinin might be used in place of chemotherapy drugs. Perhaps it’s a possibility, but when directly compared to traditional cancer chemotherapeutic agents, simple artemisinin analogs are less potent and have shorter plasma half-lives.
That’s another way of saying that artemisinin as an effective chemo agent would call for a high dosage and frequent administration, which isn’t practical in some — perhaps most — situations.
Because of that, researchers are building on the original structure of artemisinin in order to create more potent compounds, including some that can selectively target certain cells. (Interestingly, artemisinin can now also be produced using genetically-engineered yeast.)
The upside to the process of engineered artemisinin compounds is that they could be very effective as a cancer weapon, but would produce significantly fewer side effects than traditional chemo drugs.
Multiple studies show anti-cancer potential
Plenty of research points to the logic in moving forward with cancer trials on this herb. In a 2001 study published in the journal Life Sciences, two bioengineering researchers in Seattle successfully used Artemisia extracts to target and kill breast cancer cells.
And then in a University of Washington statement, research professors Henry Lai and Narendra Singh said the plant compound artemisinin is “highly toxic to the cancer cells, but has a marginal impact on normal breast cells.” As an added benefit, artemisinin acted fast in this in vitro study. Profs. Lai and Sing reported that within 16 hours the extract killed nearly all breast cancer cells that were exposed to it.
Another study took place in 2007 and was published in the journal Acta Pharmacologica Sinic. A derivative of artemisinin called dihydroartemisinin successfully inhibited the growth of human ovarian cancer cells and went on to induce apoptosis.
Then the September 2010 issue of Phytomedicine reported that compounds derived from Artemisia root sped up liver cancer apoptosis. The compound was also found to be toxic to ovarian and cervical cancers.
And a case study from the Archive of Oncology reported that a man with cancer of the larynx was successfully treated with artesunate, another extract of Artemisia. After just two months of receiving artesunate injections and tablets, the man’s tumor shrank by about 70 percent!
Excellent chances of someday going mainstream
Hands down, one of the most exciting things about Artemisia is that it’s already approved and recognized as a malaria treatment. This means there’s a significant possibility it may someday find its way into mainstream cancer treatment.
At this time, I don’t know of any alternative doctors who are using it — although, conceivably — the artemisinin that’s approved for malaria treatment could be used “off-label” to treat cancer. It seems that few human trials have been conducted when it comes to cancer (as opposed to malaria). Most of the research has been on lab cultures of cancer cells.
Artemisinin is potentially superior to conventional chemotherapy — and much safer — if the problems outlined above can be solved. We can only hope mainstream medicine will continue to fund the needed research.
It’s generally safe to use. Unlike chemotherapy, it’s nontoxic and leaves healthy cells unharmed. I’ve seen few reports of major side effects from artemisinin when used as a prescription drug for malaria. My understanding is that it’s necessary to monitor the patient for elevated liver enzymes, and that it can send some peoples’ liver enzymes dangerously off the chart.
As for the pretty Artemisia species in your garden, with their beautiful silver leaves – I wouldn’t recommend consuming anything you produce. Keep in mind that the ornamental garden varieties are not the same species that’s been proven safe in the treatment of malaria and cancer.