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Ancient Chinese folk remedy packs anti-cancer punch

A group of promising cancer-fighting compounds derived from a substance used in ancient Chinese medicine will be developed for potential use in humans, the University of Washington announced today.

The UW TechTransfer Office has signed a licensing agreement with Chongqing Holley Holdings, a Chinese company, and Holley Pharmaceuticals, its U.S. subsidiary.

The compounds, all developed through the research of UW scientists Henry Lai and Narendra Singh of the Department of Bioengineering and Tomikazu Sasaki of the Department of Chemistry, make use of a substance known as artemisinin, found in the wormwood plant and used throughout Asia since ancient times to treat malaria.

Although the compounds are promising, potential medical applications are still years away, officials say.

"We are very excited about the UW's discovery and an opportunity to develop an artemisinin-based cancer drug," Kevin Mak, chief scientist at Holley, said. "The technology is very promising, but it's in its early stages. Further research and clinical trials are needed."

The company, located in Chongqing, China, has been in the artemisinin business for more than 30 years, and is a world leader in farming, extracting and manufacturing artemisinin, its derivatives and artemisinin-based anti-malaria drugs, officials say.

Lai said he became interested in artemisinin about 10 years ago. The chemical helps control malaria because it reacts with the high iron concentrations found in the single-cell 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 the cell membrane and other molecules, breaking it apart and killing the parasite.

Lai said he began to wonder if the process might work with cancer, too.

"Cancer cells need a lot of iron to replicate DNA when they divide," Lai explained. "As
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Contact: Rob Harrill
rharrill@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
14-Oct-2004


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