Artemisia Annua is an annual herb most commonly known as Qinghao. It naturally grows in the steep hill vegetation of Central China at altitudes between 1000-1500m. It has been traditionally used to treat fevers and haemorrhoids, but is now finding applications in cancer.
Artemesia Annua has to be grown each year from seed and is peculiar in its behaviour. The agricultural condition has to be right in order for artemisinin (the active constituent) to be synthesised by the plant. The plant can grow in many places but may not contain artemisinin. It is reported that the best results have been obtained from plants growing in the Sichuan province. The plant needs to be harvested before flowering starts since it decreases the content of artemisinin.
Artemisinin (Qinghaosu) is extracted from the dry leaves of Artemisia Annua and is found to be effective in treating malaria. Its molecular structure, when in contact with iron, results in a chemical reaction that is lethal. It works like a bomb. The malaria parasite inhabits a person’s red blood cells, which are rich in iron. When an artemisinin molecule interacts with iron, it explodes, releasing lethal toxins that destroy the parasite. It is thought that artemisinin may act in a similar manner with cancerous cells since they have more iron than normal cells. Several mechanisms of action are thought to be present. One is the transfer of an oxygen atom from artemisinin when encountering an iron atom causes the formation of a free radical, intracellularly. This causes molecular damage and may lead to cell death.
Another mode of action is through alkylation. This is a process of transferring an Alkyl group from a chemical compound of artemisinin to an iron molecule thereby interfering with the DNA synthesis. Cancer cells need a lot of iron to replicate DNA when they divide. Because of artemisinin’s wide use as an anti-malarial, it has a known track record of being relatively safe and causing no known side effects. The present scientific data indicates that it may be a potent cancer chemoprevention agent.
Qinghaosu was first mentioned in 2800 BC in ancient China by Sheng Nung for treating fever. During the Vietnam/USA war, the Vietnamese government requested help from China to combat malaria which was causing high mortalities among Vietnamese soldiers. The search led the Chinese scientists to an ancient silk scroll found in a 2nd century B.C. tomb.
The scroll entitled Recipes for 52 Kinds of Diseases mentioned the qinghao plant, which cured fever. The scientists thought it may be fever brought on by malaria, and from here they began their investigation. In 1971 Qinghaosu was successfully isolated. Knowledge that the Chinese had Qinghaosu, concerned the Americans as it was a military advantage in the land war in Southeast Asia. The US Authorities asked the Walter Reed Institute if Qinghaosu could be found in America. The investigative team found that Artemisia Annua grew along the lower part of the Potomac River. Extraction was carried out and Qinghaosu was found at a concentration of 0.06% w/w. It was then named artemisinin after the generic name of the plant. In 1994, Dr Henry Lai at The University of Washington heard of artemisinin from a colleague who had been to an anti-malarial seminar. After learning of its mechanism of action in malaria, it occurred to him that it could also be used to selectively target cancer cells. Dr Henry Lai and his colleague Dr Narendra Singh initiated an in vitro study of cancer cells supported by The Breast Cancer Fund with good results. Their next step was animal testing, resulting in similar success. Meanwhile The University of Washington patented their potential cancer treatment. Throughout their studies there were several exciting anecdotes of artemisinin treatments proving successful which spurred them on.
Be careful not to confuse Artemisia Annua with Artemisia Absinthium (called wormwood or common wormwood, absinth sagewort). Although they come from the same genus Artemisia, they are different species. It is the Artemisia annua that produces the artemisinin, which is used by those with cancer. There are several derivatives of artemisinin being developed by pharmaceutical companies in an effort to increase absorption, stability and toxicity.
The three commonly used are artesunate, artemether and arteether which are all semi-synthetic. Artemisinin is the natural extract from the herb. Artemisinin and the semi-synthetic derivatives are absorbed and metabolised differently. Therefore, it must be discussed with a qualified professional which one is best for you. Unfortunately, counterfeit artemisinin is also available on the market. However this also occurs with the semi-synthetic derivatives. When using the natural extract one has to be sure of the source. Although natural extracts are being marketed, some have been tested and found to have very low artemisinin content only 5 to 10%. Some are also repackaged. Ask your supplier when buying artemisinin if they have GMP (Good Manufacture Practice) certified by The SDA (Chinese equivalent of FDA). Artemisinin is available on its own, or as combinations of artemisinin, artesunate and artemether in dietary supplementation form. As stated previously, Artemesia Annua can grow anywhere but does not necessarily contain artemisinin. The highest yielding found to be growing currently is only in China and Vietnam, which makes it expensive. In addition, artemisinin was originally used as an anti-malaria treatment. Since malarial death is more common than cancer (annually, 1 in 5 children in Africa die of malaria according to WHO and about a million deaths worldwide), this makes the supply of artemisinin limited. Hence its use by those with cancer.
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