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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 00:56 GMT
Chinese remedy 'may fight cancer'
Wormwood
Wormwood may provide a treatment for cancer
An ancient Chinese folk remedy may hold the key to a non-toxic treatment for cancer.

Researchers from the University of Washington have discovered breast cancer cells can be effectively targeted, using a chemical derived from the wormwood plant called artemisinin.

The derivative killed virtually all the breast cancer cells exposed to it within 16 hours.


It's highly toxic to the cancer cells, but has a marginal impact on normal breast cells

Professor Henry Lai
The US team hopes eventually the treatment will made available in pill form on an out-patient basis.

Researcher Professor Henry Lai said: "Not only does it appear to be effective, but it's very selective.

"It's highly toxic to the cancer cells, but has a marginal impact on normal breast cells."

Artemisinin was extracted from wormwood thousands of years ago by the Chinese, who used it to combat malaria.

Long lost

Mosquito
The same compound is a treatment for 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. This reaction generates charged atoms called free radicals that kill the infected cells by ripping open their protective membranes.

Professor Lai found that the same principle holds good for cancer cells which need a lot more iron than normal cells to help them divide rapidly.

His team pumped up the cancer cells with maximum iron concentrations and then exposed them to artemisinin.

After eight hours, just 25% of the cancer cells remained. By the time 16 hours had passed, nearly all the cells were dead.

Leukaemia

An earlier study involving leukaemia cells yielded even more impressive results - this could be because leukaemia cells have one of the highest iron concentrations among cancer cells.

The researchers now plan to carry out tests on animals.

Professor Lai said a drug treatment based on artemisinin would be very cheap.

"With the millions of people who have already taken artemisinin for malaria, we have a track record showing that it's safe.

"The fascinating thing is that this was something the Chinese used thousands of years ago. We simply found a different application."

Dr Richard Sullivan, director of clinical trials for the Cancer Research Campaign, said the research was "very interesting".

"When I hear about a Chinese herbal remedy I worry about it slightly, because often they are based on very little scientific evidence, but this has a strong underlying scientific and biological rational to it.

"We tend to concentrate on designer drugs, rather than looking at nature, but perhaps we should remember that nature has had millions of years to come up with solutions."

The research is published in the journal Life Sciences.

See also:

19 Aug 01 | Health
Herbal 'heartburn' treatment
17 Nov 01 | Health
New drug hope for malaria
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