|Article & Photo by Ann Walker|
The story of artemisinin demonstrates the potential healthcare benefits of common, everyday herbs. The substance was found in a minor TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) herb that the Chinese call Qing Hao, which had been in documented use as medicine for over two thousand years. Around the time of the millennium, and as part of a systematic team effort in China to test thousands of TCM herbs against malaria, Professor Youyou Tu discovered artemisinin in Qing Hao (Sweet Annie). Most TCM herbs are prepared by boiling the herbs in water and, as such, Sweet Annie showed no anti-malarial properties. However, Professor Tu stumbled upon a recipe by Ge Hong written over 1700 years ago, in which he described cold-extracted ‘juice’ from Sweet Annie being used to treat fevers. Professor Tu reckoned that the heat treatment had inactivated the herb’s anti-malarial properties and so it was! After isolation and purification of artemisinin, Professor Tu led the first human trials of it in humans and for her work she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015.
The story does not end there. Although artemisinin worked like a miracle cure for malaria for well over a decade, unfortunately, resistance to it is developing in malaria parasites in Africa. Now a case report by doctors from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (PMID: 28732806), in collaboration with colleagues in the USA and Canada, shows that Sweet Annie whole herb has superior anti-malarial effects than the isolated compound. In this report, eighteen seriously-ill malaria patients, unresponsive to six-months of artemisinin medication and at death’s door, were treated with tablets of the dried, powdered leaf of Sweet Annie, twice daily for 5 days (two children in the group were given a lower dose), and all were cured completely.
It should be emphasised that this was not a clinical trial, but case reports. Furthermore, the treatment was not an authorized medicine but given as a last resort on compassionate grounds. The reason the whole leaf may have worked against malaria in these cases while artemisinin did not is that, whilst the pathogen evolved a resistance against a single, isolated compound, the whole leaf contains an array of compounds, some of which may act similarly to or synergistically with artemisinin. The malaria parasite will be hard put to evolve resistance to such active-compound complexity.
PMID = PubMed identifier
Ann Walker PhD, FCPP, MNIMH, RNutr
Course Director DHM