What Is Artemisinin?

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  • Written By: T. Broderick
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 08 April 2019
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Artemisinin is an antimalarial drug derived from a wormwood plant native to China. The drug was a part of traditional Chinese medicine for more than 2,000 years before the active compound was isolated in the 1960s. Used in combination with other antimalarial drugs, it is effective in treating malaria after the onset of symptoms. Since 2008, concern has grown in the medical community that the parasites responsible for causing malaria are becoming resistant to the drug. Other initial research has also shown that the drug may one day become a cancer treatment.

Artemisinin has been a part of Chinese herbal medicine since 200 BC. Along with its antimalarial properties, the drug was used to treat more general symptoms such as fever. In the 1960s, traditional medicine became modern medicine as the Chinese military isolated artemisinin from wormwood; the goal was to create an effective malarial treatment for Chinese soldiers. Though other traditional medicines were studied, this one was chosen because it cured patients faster than any other derived compound. In the mid 1970s, this Chinese research spread to Western nations. Soon after, many derivatives and analogues of the drug were treating malaria around the world.


After decades of medical testing, the common consensus is that artemisinin is most effective in treating malaria when paired with other drugs. There are two primary reasons why this is the case. The first is that patients who solely use the drug to treat malaria have a higher rate of recurrence than those using combination therapy. The second and most important reason is that malaria-causing parasites will develop resistance faster if artemisinin is the only treatment. Despite efforts by the World Health Organization and other agencies to prevent the development of drug-resistant parasites, resistance is already occurring in certain parts of the world.

The first signs of drug resistance came in 2008 when research published in the United Kingdom showed that artemisinin was no longer an effective malarial treatment in Cambodia. As of 2011, no further research has shown similar results in other parts of the world. Even so, the UK study is a cautionary tale that countries and independent organizations fighting malaria must do more to prevent further incidents of drug resistance.

If the day comes when artemisinin is no longer an effective treatment for malaria, it may still be able to fight other diseases. Though research is still in its early stages, initial findings at the University of Washington indicate that the drug may one day become a treatment for liver cancer. Years of laboratory and clinical testing are still necessary before artemisinin becomes an approved treatment.



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