Could a plant used to treat malaria hold the key to treating several cancers and be a replacement crop for Kentucky farmers? UK Markey Cancer Center researchers think the answer might be “yes.” A trial at Markey will test the effectiveness of Artemisia annua against ovarian cancer and determine the recommended dose for any future trials.
Artemisia annua, commonly known as Sweet Wormwood or “Sweet Annie,” is used to treat fever in traditional Chinese medicine. The plant looks like a garden herb and has a sweet and minty scent. In the 1970s, Chinese scientist Tu Youyou extracted a malaria-fi ghting compound called artemisinin from the plant. The malaria drug artesunate was developed from the compound and is a first-line treatment for the disease. Tu earned a 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her discovery.
Now, UK researchers believe this plant holds even more promise. DNA damage occurs in all cells, but normal cells, on the other hand, are able to stop growing and repair their damage. Cancer cells don’t stop growing and don’t repair DNA.
They continue to pass on DNA damage to make other cancer cells. In lab tests, Artemisia annua appeared to stop cancer cell growth and allow cells to repair their DNA damage, said Dr. Jill Kolesar, a professor in the UK College of Pharmacy and administrative director of Markey’s Precision Medicine Clinic. Those fi ndings led Kolesar and Markey gynecologic oncologist Dr. Frederick Ueland to develop the world’s first clinical trial to test Artemisia annua in women with ovarian cancer.
The trial will follow women who have completed chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. During this time, doctors usually stop treatment and monitor patients for a return of cancer. Study participants will get various doses of the plant in decaffeinated tea or coffee supplements to determine the correct dose and tolerability. Once researchers find the correct dose, they will move on to a comparative study.
Kolesar and UK pediatric hematologist/oncologist Dr. Tom Badgett are also using Artemisia annua in a clinical trial for pediatric acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Funded through a state grant, the trial will follow children who are in remission.
Meanwhile, investigators from the College of Medicine also have launched a clinical trial to test the plant’s ability to fi ght COVID-19. A 2005 Chinese study showed Artemisia annua had strong antiviral activity against SARS-CoV, the coronavirus responsible for a 2003 SARS outbreak. Lab studies this year indicated leaves from the plant also have strong antiviral activity against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
The COVID-19 trials will use both the plant extract (with the blended coffees and teas) and the drug artesunate. While lab results are promising, it’s too soon to know yet whether or not Artemisia annua can help treat people who have COVID-19.
The trials are the result of several years of international cross collaboration with UK and other institutions. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Germany have worked with Artemisia annua for years. Their work resulted in a startup company, ArtemiFlow. The coffee and tea used in the Markey clinical trial are made by ArtemiLifeTM Inc., an offshoot of ArtemiFlow.
ArtemiLife and ArtemiFlow USA have worked with the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment for several years to grow and harvest Artemisia annua in Kentucky for research. ArtemiFlow approached the College of Agriculture, Food and Environment’s Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center (KTRDC) about growing Artemisia annua.
The plant’s production process is similar to the one used to produce tobacco. In fact, it’s so similar that seedlings are transplanted in the fields using the same machine used to farm tobacco. Once Artemisia annua leaves are dried, they can be used to create the drug artesunate or they can be blended into coffees and teas. Kentucky farmers now grow Artemisia annua for research and production of ArtemiFlow’s coffee and tea supplements.
“Can you imagine if we could get rid of something that causes cancer and replace it with something that treats cancer?” Dr. Jill Kolesar
Kentucky is the only state growing the plant in large quantities. UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment researchers have worked with farmers to refi ne the production method. Patrick Perry, a research coordinator for KTRDC, says the state could ramp up production if demand for Artemisia annua increases.
Kentucky has one of the nation’s highest smoking rates and some of the highest rates of tobacco-related cancers. Artemisia annua could change that.
As Kolesar puts it: “Can you imagine if we could get rid of something that causes cancer and replace it with something that treats cancer?”