UW researchers kill cancer cells with oxygen and wormwood compound

Artemisinin from wormwood and pure oxygen
killed cancer cells in a UW lab study
Adding pure oxygen boosts effectiveness of natural compound artemisinin for killing cancer cells

University of Washington researchers studied the compound artemisinin that comes from wormwood, finding adding pure oxygen boosted the ability of artemisinin to kill cancer cells. Scientists have been exploring the anti-cancer potential of the wormwood compound since the 1990’s.

In new research, when the scientists combined pure oxygen with artemisinin, the growth of leukemia cells in the lab was reduced by 38 percent, boosting the effect of the wormwood compound 50 percent.

Oxygen alone stopped cancer cell growth by fifteen percent, but the researchers say using high-pressure oxygen at three-and-a-half times normal air pressure made the compound even more potent.

“If you combine high-pressure oxygen with artemisinin you can get a much better curing effect,” said author Henry Lai, a UW research professor of bioengineering.We only measured up to 48 hours. Over longer time periods we expect the synergistic effects to be even more dramatic.”

The findings, reported in the journal Anticancer Research, suggest a new target for cancer treatment from the natural compound. The study authors note artemisinin is inexpensive, non-injectable, and according to Dr. Lai, “It’s 100 times more specific than traditional chemotherapy.”

For the study, Lai place a Petri dish with cancer cells in a hyperbaric chamber for 48 hours that Washington State University Professor and co-author Raymond Quock has been using to study the effect of pressurized oxygen on pain.

Lai and University of Washington colleagues developed and licensed variant of artemisinin that is 1000 times more potent than the natural compound in 2004.

For clinical studies, Lai says people or animals could lie in hyperbaric oxygen chambers to boost the effect of artemisinin for treating cancer. He says he has suspected oxygen could enhance the effect of the wormwood compound since 2010 because it promotes the formation of free radicals.

The researchers are conducting clinical trials on dogs with lymphoma using synthetic artemisinin compounds. They are also planting crops of artemesia to be developed as a cancer therapy and to see if it can control parasites in poultry.

Cancer cells need iron to form new DNA, grow and metastasize and artemisinin reacts with iron to form free radical compounds, making cancer cells unstable. It is also used as an anti-malarial in Asia and Africa.

The natural compound artemisinin is known to kill cancer cells. In the new study from University of Washington Researchers, the combination of pure oxygen and the wormwood compound destroyed leukemia cells. Dr. Lai says the combination effect in the lab was even more pronounced for breast cancer cells.

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