Pharmaceutical researchers are constantly developing and testing drugs that never seem to pan out, but what if the answer to all this isn’t found in the hospital at all? Scientists are increasingly demonstrating just how powerful naturally occurring substances can be in the fight against cancer. In many cases, these substances are able to destroy cancer cells without harming the healthy cells nearby. One such solution that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserves is sweet wormwood.
Wormwood grows natively in parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa and is perhaps most famous for its use in the alcoholic beverage absinthe. Sweet wormwood, however, contains the active ingredient artemisinin, and it’s been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years to boost the immune system and stop parasites. In fact, its name is due in part to the fact that it is so good at expelling roundworms, threadworms and tapeworms by creating an environment in the intestines in which parasites struggle to survive.
Researchers from the University of Washington have found that a compound made of a highly concentrated form of wormwood and iron can be more than 1000 times as effective as chemotherapy in targeting cancer cells, especially when it comes to breast cancer. The combination is considered a "time bomb" for cancerous cells.
Study Senior Author Tomikazu Sasaki said: “The compound is like a special agent planting a bomb inside the cell.”
Because cancer cells don’t dispose of free-floating iron molecules as well as healthy cells do, the presence of iron can be stressful for them. This inspired the researchers to use naturally-occurring holotransferrin to carry iron into cells and deliver the high doses of artemisinin in prostate and breast cancer cells that way.
The researchers’ compound overcomes the biggest challenge facing cancer treatment developers today, and that is the fact that cancer cells develop from the body’s own normal cells, and most methods of killing them also impact healthy cells. While most of the chemotherapies currently available destroy roughly one normal cell for every five to ten cancerous cells they kill, this method kills roughly one healthy cell for every 12,000 cancer cells. It also has few side effects. Although artemisinin is toxic in the presence of iron, it is generally harmless otherwise.
All of the cancer cells that were exposed to this specially prepared holotransferrin died within just 16 hours. Best of all, the approach works on all types of cancer cells rather than only serving for a few specific types. The reason it can be particularly effective on breast cancer cells is because these cells sometimes have as many as 15 times more iron receptors than the cells that surround them.
In a similar study carried out by Worcester Polytechnic Institute, researchers discovered that that artemisinin reacts with iron to form free radicals that prompt cancer cells to die; cancer cells’ increased iron uptake makes them vulnerable to the free radicals created by artemisinin.
In addition, sweet wormwood contains other anticancer compounds such as quercetin, limonene, and B-pinene.
Artemisinin is already used as an anti-malarial drug, and now it appears that it could well become the basis of an effective cancer treatment in the future.
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