Med Trop (Mars). 1998 ; 58(3 Suppl): 9-12.
How Chinese scientists discovered qinghaosu (artemisinin) and developed its derivatives? What are the future perspectives?
Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China. [email protected]
Since the middle of this century and especially since the 1960s and 1970s. Chinese scientists have put considerable effort and resources into the search for new antimalarial compounds extracted from Chinese traditional herbs. Archaeological findings indicate that qinghao (Artemisia annua L.) has been used as a traditional remedy in China for over two thousand years. Its antimalarial principle was finally isolated in 1971 and named artemisinin or qinghaosu (meaning the principle of qinghao in Chinese). Its rapid action, low toxicity and powerful effect against falciparum malaria made it a favored subject for research. In 1976, the unique structure of the molecule, characterized by an endoperoxide and an alternative O-C-O-C segment, was identified. The specific lactone reduction discovered during the determination of the structure opened the way for the synthesis of qinghaosu derivatives, and thereafter a series of more active and more oil- or water-soluble derivatives was developed. Subsequent studies of the structure/activity relationship led to the discovery of dihydroartemisinin, artemether and artesunate. Now qinghaosu and these three derivatives are being used around the world as effective new antimalarial drugs in the fight against falciparum malaria, including multi-drug-resistant Plasmodium falciparum. At the present time new qinghaosu analogues or derivatives are being developed and studies of their structure/activity relationships, their antimalarial mechanisms, their interaction with ferrous ions and the DNA damage associated with these processes are being actively pursued. In addition, recent studies also indicate that some qinghaosu derivatives have other bioactivities, including antiparasitic (against Schistosoma japonicum, Toxoplasma gondii and so on) and anticancer activities. Research into qinghaosu and its derivatives has already produced and will no doubt continue to produce results of the utmost importance in the fight against malaria and other diseases.