Scientists in Seattle have shown that a compound called Artemisinin, extracted from the Wormwood plant (Artemsisia Annua L.), seeks out and destroys breast cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed.

Bioengineering researcher Henry Lai reported at the University of Washington that laboratory tests showed that “the compound Artemisinin killed, within 16 hours, virtually all human breast cancer cells exposed to it in the test tube”.

He also reported that a dog with a type of bone cancer known as Osteosarcoma, so severe that it couldn’t walk across the room, made a complete recovery within five days of receiving the treatment.

X-rays showed that the dog’s tumor had “basically disappeared”, Henry Lai added that he believes the dog is still alive two years later.

Chinese folk practitioners extracted Artemisinin from the plant Artemesia annua L., commonly known as Wormwood, thousands of years ago for use in the treatment of Malaria.

A “secret recipe” for the treatment of Malaria was discovered on a stone tablet in the tomb of a prince of the Han Dynasty, during an archaeological dig in the 1970s, since then, Artemisinin re-emerged as a therapy for the mosquito-borne disease.

Experiments into why Artemisinin works as an anti-malaria agent led to its tests as an anti-cancer drug. The key turned out to be a shared characteristic of the Malaria parasite and dividing cancer cells and high iron concentrations. When Artemisinin or any of its derivatives comes into contact with iron, a chemical reaction occurs, spawning charged atoms that are called free radicals. In Malaria, the free radicals attack and bind with cell membranes, breaking them apart and killing the single-cell parasite. Cells, too, need iron to replicate DNA when they divide.

Since cancer is characterised by out-of-control cell division, cancer cells have much higher iron concentrations than do normal cells. On their surfaces, cancer cells also have more so-called transferrin receptors, cellular pathways that allow iron to enter than healthy cells. In the case of breast cancer, the cells have five to 15 times more transferrin receptors on their surface than normal breast cells. About seven years ago Henry Lai reasoned, why not target cancer cells with the anti-Malaria treatment? Working with assistant research professor Narendra Singh, Henry Lai devised a strategy and obtained funding from the Breast Cancer Fund in San Francisco. Their work appears in the November issue of the journal “Life Sciences”.

The thrust of the strategy, according to Henry Lai, is to pump up cancer cells with even more iron and then introduce Artemisinin to selectively kill them. A compound known as Holotransferrin which binds with transferrin receptors transports iron into cells and further increases the cells’ iron concentrations.

Cells exposed to just one of the compounds showed no appreciable effect, Henry Lai reports. But the response by cancer cells when hit with first Holotransferrin, then Artemisinin, was dramatic.

After eight hours, three-fourths of the cancer cells were obliterated. By 16 hours later, nearly all the cancer cells were dead. Just as importantly, he says, the vast majority of normal breast cells did not die, showing the safety of the treatment.

The success is particularly noteworthy in breast cancer cells that were resistant to radiation. More aggressive cancers such as pancreatic and acute leukemia, which are characterised by more rapid cell division and higher iron concentrations, respond even better, Henry Lai says. In a separate study, the therapy eliminated leukemia cells in the test tube within eight hours. The next step, according to Henry Lai, is further animal testing, followed by human trials. First the patient would be given iron supplements to raise iron concentrations in their cancer cells, and then the compound would be given in pill form. While human tests are still years away, the treatment could revolutionise the way some cancers particularly aggressive, fast-growing ones are approached. Let’s hope that this Folk remedy lives up to its early promise.

“The fascinating thing is that this was something the Chinese used thousands of years ago. The application certainly makes sense. There’s a wealth of research linking iron and cancer: One study, for example, showed that three times as much iron could be extracted from malignant breast tissue as from benign tissue”, according to Ralph Moss, author of the “Healing Choices” reports: for people with cancer, elevated iron storage  was found in 88 percent of the breast cancer patients studied.

Given this shared characteristic of Malaria and Cancer cells, why did it take so long to think of it? “Perhaps people just don’t think of simple ideas”.


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