Background: Artemisinin is a chemical compound extracted from the wormwood plant, Artemisia annua L. It has been shown to selectively kill cancer cells in vitro and retard the growth of implanted fibrosarcoma tumors in rats. In the present research, we investigated its mechanism of cytotoxicity to cancer cells.
Materials and methods: Molt-4 cells, in complete RPMI-1640 medium, were first incubated with 12 microM of human holotransferrin at 37 degrees C in a humid atmosphere of 5% CO2 for one hour. This enhanced the iron supply to the cells. The cells were then pelleted and transferred to a complete RPMI-1640 containing 200 microM of an analog dihydroartemisinin (DHA) and incubation was started (0 h). In addition, some culture samples were treated with holotransferrin alone and some (controls) were assayed without neither holotransferrin nor DHA treatment. Cells were counted and DNA diffusion assay was used to evaluate apoptosis and necrosis in each sample at 0 h and at 1, 2, 4 and 8 h of incubation.
Results: DHA treatment significantly decreased cell counts and increased the proportion of apoptosis in cancer cells compared to controls (chi2=4.5, df=1, p<0.035). Addition of holotransferrin significantly further decreased cell counts (chi2=4.5, df=1, p<0.035) and increased apoptosis (chi2=4.5, df=1, p<0.035). No necrotic cells were observed.
Conclusion: This rapid induction of apoptosis in cancer cells after treatment with DHA indicates that artemisinin and its analogs may be inexpensive and effective cancer agents.