Artesunate induces oncosis-like cell death in vitro and has antitumor activity against pancreatic cancer xenografts in vivo

Cancer Chemother Pharmacol. 2010 Apr;65(5):895-902. doi: 10.1007/s00280-009-1095-5. Epub 2009 Aug 19.


Pancreatic cancer is highly resistant to the currently available chemotherapeutic agents. Less than 5% of patients diagnosed with this disease could survive beyond 5 years. Thus, there is an urgent need for the development of novel, efficacious drugs that can treat pancreatic cancer. Herein we report the identification of artesunate (ART), a derivative of artemisinin, as a potent and selective antitumor agent against human pancreatic cancer cells in vitro and in vivo. ART exhibits selective cytotoxic activity against Panc-1, BxPC-3 and CFPAC-1 pancreatic cancer cells with IC(50) values that are 2.3- to 24-fold less than that of the normal human hepatic cells (HL-7702). The pan caspase inhibitor zVAD-fmk did not inhibit the cytotoxic activity of ART. Electron microscopy of ART-treated cells revealed severe cytoplasmic swelling and vacuolization, swollen and internally disorganized mitochondria, dilation (but not fragmentation) of the nuclei without chromatin condensation, and cell lysis, yielding a morphotype that is typical of oncosis. The ART-treated cells exhibited a loss of mitochondrial membrane potential (DeltaPsim) and ART-induced cell death was inhibited in the presence of the reactive oxygen species (ROS) scavenger N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC). Importantly, ART produced a dose-dependent tumor regression in an in vivo pancreatic cancer xenografts model. The in vivo antitumor activity of ART was similar to that of gemcitabine. Taken together, our study suggests that ART exhibits antitumor activity against human pancreatic cancer via a novel form of oncosis-like cell death, and that ART should be considered a potential therapeutic candidate for treating pancreatic cancer.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / chemistry
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity
  • Apoptosis
  • Artemisinins / chemistry
  • Artemisinins / therapeutic use*
  • Artemisinins / toxicity
  • Artesunate
  • Cell Death
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Humans
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / drug therapy*
  • Pancreatic Neoplasms / ultrastructure
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Artemisinins
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Artesunate