A derivative called artemisinin which comes from the sweet wormwood plant may help to prevent breast cancer from setting in, according to researchers of the University of Washington. Artemisinin has been used to combat malaria since early times.
Henry Lai, who conducted the study with fellow UW bioengineer Narendra P. Singh, said that the findings had shown that the substance was selectively toxic to cancer cells.
"Based on earlier studies, artemisinin is selectively toxic to cancer cells and is effective orally. With the results of this study, it's an attractive candidate for cancer prevention," he said.
Most cancer cells have a high rate of iron uptake. Their surfaces have large numbers of receptors, which transport iron into the cells. This appears to allow the artemisinin to selectively target and kill the cancer cells for when it 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.
As a part of the study, the researchers administered to rats a single oral dose of a substance known to induce multiple breast tumors. Then, half of the rats were fed regular food, while the other half were fed food with 0.02 percent artemisinin added to it.
For 40 weeks, researchers monitored both groups for the formation of breast tumors, and it was found that among the rats that didn't get artemisinin, 96% developed tumors while only 57% of the rats that were fed artemisinin developed tumors.
Dr Lai further said that the present data indicated that the artemisinin may be a potent cancer-chemoprevention agent, and added that additional studies were needed to see whether it could be used for other types of cancers as well.
"The present data indicate that it may be a potent cancer-chemoprevention agent. Additional studies are needed to investigate whether the breast cancer prevention property of artemisinin can be generalized to other types of cancer," he said.