Ancient Chinese folk remedy may hold key to non-toxic cancer treatment

Two bioengineering researchers at the University of Washington have discovered a promising potential treatment for cancer among the ancient arts of Chinese folk medicine.

Research Professor Henry Lai and assistant research Professor Narendra Singh have exploited the chemical properties of a wormwood derivative to target breast cancer cells, with surprisingly effective results. A study in the latest issue of the journal Life Sciences describes how the derivative killed virtually all human breast cancer cells exposed to it within 16 hours.

Not only does it appear to be effective, but its very selective, Lai said. Its highly toxic to the cancer cells, but has a marginal impact on normal breast cells.

The compound, artemisinin, isnt new. It apparently was extracted from the plant Artemesia annua L., commonly known as wormwood, thousands of years ago by the Chinese, who used it to combat malaria. However, the treatment was lost over time. Artemisinin was rediscovered during an archaeological dig in the 1970s that unearthed recipes for ancient medical remedies, and has become widely used in modern Asia and Africa to fight the mosquito-borne disease.

The compound helps control malaria because it reacts with the high iron concentrations found in the malaria parasite. When artemisinin comes into contact with iron, a chemical reaction ensues, spawning charged atoms that chemists call free radicals. The free radicals attack cell membranes, breaking them apart and killing the single-cell parasite.

About seven years ago, Lai began to hypothesize that the process might work with cancer, too.

Cancer cells need a lot of iron to replicate DNA when they divide, Lai explained. As a result, cancer cells have much higher iron concentrations than normal cells. When we began to understand how artemisinin worked, I started wondering if we could use that knowledge to target cancer cells.

Lai devised a potential method and began to look for

Contact: Rob Harrill
University of Washington

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