Does artemisinin help treat cancer?

Drugs
Artemisinin is a chemical compound in a traditional Chinese herb called Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood. Some research suggests that it may show promise in future cancer treatments.

Research indicates that the compound could inhibit the growth of tumors and metastasis.

However, this research has typically used animal models. No strong clinical trials in humans suggest that these benefits extend to us. Determining the true effects of the compound in people will require further research.

In this article, we look at the evidence behind artemisinin as a potential cancer treatment, how people use it, and its possible side effects.

What is artemisinin?

Wormwood plant containing artemisinin compound
Wormwood has many uses, such as treating malaria.

Artemisinin is a compound derived from the sweet wormwood plant, which practitioners of Chinese medicine often use.

Sweet wormwood is native to Asia. It has fern-like leaves and yellow flowers. People have usually used this plant in traditional and homeopathic treatments for:

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommend a form of artemisinin for treating severe malaria.


Can artemisinin help treat cancer?

The Artemisia annua plant may have anticancer properties, though there is currently no strong evidence that it can help fight cancer in humans.

The investigations into its anticancer properties tend to have small sample sizes or use animal models instead of humans.

Some researchers believe that artemisinin interacts with iron to form free radicals in the body. Free radicals are compounds that kill cells. Cancerous cells absorb a lot of iron, which makes them potentially much more susceptible to damage from these free radicals.

A group of researchers looked at all of the research, conducted between 1983 and 2018, into the effects of artemisinin and its derivatives on cancer, and they reported the following:

  • Several studies suggest that artemisinin and its synthetic forms can target cancer cells when combined with chemotherapy.
  • Artemisinin may produce fewer side effects than traditional cancer treatments.
  • Study sizes tended to be small, which means that their results are less reliable.
  • Researchers need further studies to know how safe artemisinin is for humans and how artemisinin affects cancer cells.
  • They also need further studies to determine how artemisinin interacts with cancer drugs.

A 2015 review, which looked at 127 investigations into the effects of antimalarials on cancer, also suggested that artemisinin could have anticancer properties. It similarly notes that there has not yet been enough research in humans to understand the true effects.

Another research paper, published in 2012, identified potential benefits to using artemisinin in cancer treatments.

The authors reported that simple compounds of artemisinin are less potent and break down more quickly than traditional cancer treatments. This could mean that people who use this therapy in the future require high, frequent doses.

Despite the lack of high-quality, large-scale research into the effects of artemisinin on cancer in humans, some scientists remain hopeful.

How do people use artemisinin?

Because the scientific community has yet to determine the effects of this chemical on humans, doctors are not currently using artemisinin to treat cancer.

There may be contraindications, interactions, and long-term dangers that no one can foresee.

A lack of research also means that scientists do not, for example, know what a safe dosage of this artemisinin treatment would be.

Some people take artemisinin as a natural remedy for other health conditions.

As a medicine, the most common forms of artemisinin include:

  • oral tablets
  • injections
  • creams or other forms applied topically
  • suppositories

Some people use 4.5 to 9 grams of the dried Artemisia annua herb in boiling water as a tea infusion to help treat fever and malaria. Others use 100 to 200 milligrams of artemisinin, in combination with other therapies, to treat the disease.


Side effects and risks

Senior man touching ears because of hearing loss
Artemisinin may cause ringing in the ears or hearing loss.

Though artemisinin is a naturally occurring compound, taking it involves risks. In recommended doses, it may be safe for a person to take artemisinin to treat malaria or a fever.

However, people may experience the following side effects:

  • a skin rash, after topical use
  • dizziness
  • ringing in the ears
  • hearing loss
  • vomiting
  • nausea
  • tremors
  • liver problems

Interactions

Speak to a doctor before taking any form of artemisinin to help prevent interactions with other medications.

Artemisinin may, for example, interact with anti-seizure medications, and anyone taking these medications should refrain from taking the chemical.


Takeaway

Researchers are working to definitively determine how safe and effective artemisinin is as a cancer treatment. Scientists are also investigating potential drug interactions and dosages.

Early studies indicate potentially positive results. However, a person should not attempt to take artemisinin as a form of cancer treatment on their own.

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