If you lived in China a thousand years ago and had a fever, inflammation, or malaria, a tea made from a flowering plant called Artemisia annua might have been your treatment. You may know it better as sweet wormwood.
The plant contains a compound called artemisinin. It's the basis for a malaria drug called artesunate that doctors prescribe today.
Some people believe that artemisinin may be an alternative to more aggressive cancer treatments. While cancer cells often become resistant to most chemotherapy drugs, that doesn’t seem to happen with artemisinin. And unlike many cancer treatments, artemisinin isn't toxic. It's also cheap and easy to give.
What Could It Do?
Cancer cells rely on iron to spread. When iron and artemisinin enter a cancer cell together, they form atoms called free radicals that kill cancer cells without harming normal ones.
Studies show that artemisinin may slow the spread of tumors. It could also cause cancer cells to:
- Stop dividing and spreading
- Get cut off from their blood supply
Does It Work?
There have been just a few small clinical trials that looked at artemisinin’s role in treating cancer. What research has been done used artemisinin in conjunction with normal cancer care, not as an alternative. We need more research to know for sure if it can help. So far, those small studies have some experts feeling optimistic about its potential role as a treatment for some types of cancer, including:
Colorectal. In a study of 20 people with colon cancer, nine were treated with artesunate while the rest were not. Those that received artesunate saw 12% more of their cancer cells die than those who didn't.
Melanoma. When taken in combination with a second drug, artesunate showed promise for people with melanoma of the eye that had spread. One person was still alive 47 months after they found out they had this form of skin cancer. By comparison, survival for this type of cancer is usually about 2-5 months.
Lung cancer. Researchers followed 120 cases of advanced non-small-cell lung cancer. People treated with a combination of artesunate and chemotherapy saw their cancer progress more slowly than those in a second group who didn't take these medicines together.
Possible side effects include:
Because there hasn't been much research on the use of artemisinin for treating cancer, there are lots of unknowns. If you're thinking about this as a potential treatment, you should talk with your medical team. They can tell you if there's a clinical trial available and if you could be a participant.