UW Today

This is an archived article.

October 14, 2004

An ancient remedy reborn: UW licenses potential wormwood treatment for cancer

 A group of promising cancer-fighting compounds derived from a substance used in ancient Chinese medicine will be developed for potential use in humans, the UW has announced.


 The UW TechTransfer Office has signed a licensing agreement with Chongqing Holley Holdings, a Chinese company, and Holley Pharmaceuticals, its U.S. subsidiary.


 The compounds, all developed through the research of UW scientists Henry Lai and Narendra Singh of the Department of Bioengineering  and Tomikazu Sasaki of the Department of Chemistry, make use of the properties of a substance known as artemisinin, found in the wormwood plant and used throughout Asia since ancient times to treat malaria.


Although the compounds are promising, potential medical applications are still years away, officials say.


“We are very excited about the UW’s discovery and an opportunity to develop an artemisinin-based cancer drug,” Kevin Mak, chief scientist at Holley, said. “The technology is very promising, but it’s in its early stages. Further research and clinical trials are needed.”


The company, located in Chongqing, China, has been in the artemisinin business for more than 30 years, and is a world leader in farming, extracting and manufacturing artemisinin, its derivatives and artemisinin-based anti-malaria drugs, officials say.


Lai said he became interested in artemisinin about 10 years ago. The chemical helps control malaria because it reacts with the high iron concentrations found in the single-cell malaria parasite. When artemisinin comes into contact with iron, a chemical reaction ensues, spawning charged atoms that chemists call “free radicals.” The free radicals attack the cell membrane and other molecules, breaking it apart and killing the parasite.


Lai said he began to wonder if the process might work with cancer, too.


“Cancer cells need a lot of iron to replicate DNA when they divide,” Lai explained. “As a result, cancer cells have much higher iron concentrations than normal cells. When we began to understand how artemisinin worked, I started wondering if we could use that knowledge to target cancer cells.”


Perhaps the most promising of the methods licensed involves the use of transferrin, to which artemisinin is attached. Transferrin is an iron-carrying protein found in the blood, which is transported into cells via transferrin receptors on a cell’s surface.


Iron-hungry cancer cells typically have significantly more transferrin receptors on their surface than normal cells, which allows them to take in more of the iron-carrying protein. That, according to Lai, is what seems to make the compound so effective.


“We call it a Trojan horse because a cancer cell recognizes transferrin as a natural, harmless protein and picks up the tagged compound without knowing that a bomb artemisinin – is hidden inside.”


Once inside the cancer cell, the iron is released and reacts with the artemisinin. That makes the compound both highly toxic and, because of cancer’s rapacious need for iron, highly selective. Surrounding, healthy cells are essentially undamaged.


“Our research in the lab indicated that the artemisinin-tagged transferrin was 34,000 times more effective in selecting and killing the cancer cells,” Lai said.