According to a study led by the National University of Singapore, the combined therapy was more effective in exterminating cancer cells than artemisinin alone, and showed little effect on non-cancerous cells.
In addition, researchers found greater levels of haem – the compound responsible for activating artemisinin – in cancer cells than non-cancer cells.
“Upon activation by haemin cancer cells, artemisinin attacks more than 300 proteins, many of which are important for the survival of cancer cells,” said researchers.
Artemisinin X ALA
The treatment combines artemisinin and photosensitising aminolaevulnic acid (ALA), which triggers the generation of free radicals that can eliminate cancer when exposed to light.
According to the University’s Jigang Wang, the combination therapy is more effective in eradicating cancer cells and hindering tumour growth than the artemisinin treatment alone.
“Artemisinin and ALA are both existing drugs that are well tolerated by the human body. As such, this promising cancer treatment could have fewer side effects,” said Wang.
Fellow researcher Lin Qinsong said this is not the first time the anti-malaria drug has been investigated as a cancer treatment.
“Artemisinin has been reported to possess anti-cancer activities in recent years, but the mechanism of the drug has not been well understood.”
“In this study, we found that the anti-cancer mechanism of artemisinin resembles its action towards malaria parasites,” he said.
A safer treatment?
Lin told us the combination therapy may be safer than anti-cancer treatments chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
“Compared to them, the artemisinin/ALA combination therapy may be a safer alternative as this study had demonstrated that it can kill colorectal cancer cells and suppress tumour growth with fewer side effects,” he said.
Lin also said the combination therapy could potentially be used to treat a broader spectrum of cancers than cancer type-specific treatments such as Herceptin, used to treat HER2+ breast cancer.
“We are currently looking into testing this combination treatment on liver cancer,” he added.