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Ancient Chinese remedy shows potential in preventing breast cancer

A derivative of the sweet wormwood plant used since ancient times to fight malaria and shown to precisely target and kill cancer cells may someday aid in stopping breast cancer before it gets a toehold. In a new study, two University of Washington bioengineers found that the substance, artemisinin, appeared to prevent the onset of breast cancer in rats that had been given a cancer-causing agent. The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Cancer Letters.

"Based on earlier studies, artemisinin is selectively toxic to cancer cells and is effective orally," according to Henry Lai, research professor in the Department of Bioengineering, who conducted the study with fellow UW bioengineer Narendra P. Singh, a research associate professor in the department. "With the results of this study, it's an attractive candidate for cancer prevention."

The properties that make artemisinin an effective antimalarial agent also appear responsible for its anti-cancer clout. When artemisinin comes into contact with iron, a chemical reaction ensues that spawns free radicals highly reactive chemicals that, when formed inside a cell, attack the cell membrane and other structures, killing the cell. The malaria parasite can't eliminate iron in the blood cells it eats, and stores it. Artemisinin makes that stored iron toxic to the parasite.

The same appears to be true for cancer. Because they multiply so rapidly, most cancer cells have a high rate of iron uptake. Their surfaces have large numbers of receptors, which transport iron into the cells. That appears to allow the artemisinin to selectively target and kill the cancer cells, based on their higher iron content. In the latest study, the researchers administered to rats a single oral dose of 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene, a substance known to induce multiple breast tumors. Half of the rats then were fed regular food, while the other half were fed food with 0.02 percent artemisinin added. For 40 weeks, researc
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Contact: Rob Harrill
rharrill@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
19-Dec-2005


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