A whole-genome scan for Artemisinin cytotoxicity reveals a novel therapy for human brain tumors

EMBO Mol Med. 2023 Mar 8;15(3):e16959. doi: 10.15252/emmm.202216959. Epub 2023 Feb 6.


The natural compound Artemisinin is the most widely used antimalarial drug worldwide. Based on its cytotoxicity, it is also used for anticancer therapy. Artemisinin and its derivates are endoperoxides that damage proteins in eukaryotic cells; their definite mechanism of action and host cell targets, however, have remained largely elusive. Using yeast and haploid stem cell screening, we demonstrate that a single cellular pathway, namely porphyrin (heme) biosynthesis, is required for the cytotoxicity of Artemisinins. Genetic or pharmacological modulation of porphyrin production is sufficient to alter its cytotoxicity in eukaryotic cells. Using multiple model systems of human brain tumor development, such as cerebral glioblastoma organoids, and patient-derived tumor spheroids, we sensitize cancer cells to dihydroartemisinin using the clinically approved porphyrin enhancer and surgical fluorescence marker 5-aminolevulinic acid, 5-ALA. A combination treatment of Artemisinins and 5-ALA markedly and specifically killed brain tumor cells in all model systems tested, including orthotopic patient-derived xenografts in vivo. These data uncover the critical molecular pathway for Artemisinin cytotoxicity and a sensitization strategy to treat different brain tumors, including drug-resistant human glioblastomas.

Keywords: 5-ALA; Artemisinin; genome wide screen; glioblastoma therapy; porphyrin biogenesis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aminolevulinic Acid
  • Antimalarials* / pharmacology
  • Artemisinins* / pharmacology
  • Artemisinins* / therapeutic use
  • Brain Neoplasms* / drug therapy
  • Heme / metabolism
  • Humans


  • artemisinin
  • Artemisinins
  • Antimalarials
  • Heme
  • Aminolevulinic Acid