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Artemisnin

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The herb Artemisia annua, or sweet wormwood, has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and has treated fevers for over 2000 years. In the 1960s the Chinese government began trying to isolate active ingredients in traditional remedies which might be useful for treating malaria. In 1972 artemisinin, or qinghaosu in Chinese, was isolated from Artemisia annua by Chinese scientists. It was effective against strains of malaria which were resistant to other drugs.

Suspicion and political conflicts meant scientists outside China only began systematically investigating artemisinin in the 1980s. By the late 1990s the World Health Organization was systematically using artemisinin in its malaria programme.

Artemisinin is now combined with other antimalarial drugs to stop new resistant strains of malaria developing. It is expensive to extract from Artemisia annua, so researchers are focusing on synthetically producing the compound. Charities are also giving the plant to communities affected by malaria so they can produce their own remedies.

Bibliography

DL Klayman, ‘Qinghaosu (artemisinin): an antimalarial drug from China’, Science, 228/4703 (1985), pp 1049-1055

C Wright (ed.) Artemisia (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2002)

 

Glossary:

Malaria

Parasitic disease transmitted by certain kinds of mosquito. Malaria is characterized by fever and enlargement of the spleen. Each year, there are approximately 515 million cases of malaria, killing between one and three million people.

Synthetic

A substance that has been made artificially, i.e. one that does not come from a natural source. Nylon is an example of a synthetic fibre.