Sweet wormwood, also known as sweet sagewort or Artemisia annua, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2,000 years. It’s use for cancer treatment throughout the ages is ironic as scientists have struggled to find effective and safe treatments for cancer. Studies on the plant indicate such treatments may have been right under our noses the whole time.
According to researchers with the University of Washington, a compound derived from sweet wormwood could be 1,200 more specific in killing certain cancer cells than conventional cancer treatments. Further, it does this without the side effects so commonly seen in chemotherapy.
Artemisinin is an anti-malarial that is derived from the plant. For their work, the researchers attached a “chemical homing device” to the drug that would allow it to selectively target cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone.
According to the study abstract:
“Artemisinin reacts with iron to form free radicals that kill cells. Since cancer cells uptake relatively larger amounts of iron than normal cells, they are more susceptible to the toxic effect of artemisinin. In previous research, we have shown that artemisinin is more drawn to cancer cells than to normal cells. In the present research, we covalently attached artemisinin to the iron-carying plasma glycoprotein transferrin.”
In studies involving leukemia, breast, and prostate cancer cells, the scientists say the compound was both effective at killing the cancer while preserving the non-cancerous cells.
“The compound is like a special agent planting a bomb inside the cell,” said Tomikazu Sasaki, senior author of the study.
“We call it a Trojan horse because the cancer cell recognizes transferrin as a natural, harmless protein. So the cell picks up the compound without knowing that a bomb (artemisinin) is hidden inside,” explains researcher Henry Lai.
“By itself, artemisinin is about 100 times more selective in killing cancer cells as opposed to normal cells,” says Lai. “Artemisinin is 34,000 times more potent in killing the cancer cells as opposed to their normal cousins. So the tagging process appears to have greatly increased the potency of artemisinin’s cancer-killing properties.”
The study has yet to be replicated in humans, but Holley Pharmaceuticals has already licensed the compound.