A derivative of the sweet wormwood plant used since ancient times to fight malaria and shown to precisely target and kill cancer cells may someday aid in stopping breast cancer before it gets a toehold. In a new study, two University of Washington bioengineers found that the substance, artemisinin, appeared to prevent the onset of breast cancer in rats that had been given a cancer-causing agent. The study appears in the latest issue of the journal Cancer Letters.
"Based on earlier studies, artemisinin is selectively toxic to cancer cells and is effective orally," according to Henry Lai, research professor in the Department of Bioengineering, who conducted the study with fellow UW bioengineer Narendra P. Singh, a research associate professor in the department. "With the results of this study, it’s an attractive candidate for cancer prevention."
The properties that make artemisinin an effective antimalarial agent also appear responsible for its anti-cancer clout. When artemisinin comes into contact with iron, a chemical reaction ensues that spawns free radicals – highly reactive chemicals that, when formed inside a cell, attack the cell membrane and other structures, killing the cell. The malaria parasite can’t eliminate iron in the blood cells it eats, and stores it. Artemisinin makes that stored iron toxic to the parasite.
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