March 18, 2024
I’m a powerful malaria drug that emerged from traditional Chinese medicine.
What molecule am I?
Image of Artemisinin 3D Image of Artemisinin

Artemisinin1 is a sesquiterpene endoperoxide/δ-lactone drug for treating malaria caused by the protozoan Plasmodium falciparum. Artemisinin also refers to the group of the molecule’s derivatives.

In 1972, Youyou Tu at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine2 (Beijing) discovered artemisinin in the herb Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood), which Is used in traditional Chinese medicine. Tu, who does not have a medical degree, shared the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her breakthrough malaria drug.

In 1979, Tu and her co-workers published an article in a Chinese journal on the structure and reactions of artemisinin (which was then called arteannuin), along with the derivative arteannuin B3. Since then, more than 120 additional derivatives have been discovered or synthesized.

Medical researchers have explored the possibilities of using artemisinin against other diseases, including helminthiasis (a parasitic worm infection), cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Just this February, Jing Luo, Qing-wen Tao, and colleagues at China–Japan Friendship Hospital (Beijing) described the mechanisms with which artemisinin combats primary Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the salivary and lachrymal glands, causing dry mouth, dry eye, and fatigue. The researchers found that artemisinin works by modulating the balance of regulatory T cells (Tregs cells) and certain T helper cells (Th17 cells).

For additional information about artemisinins, see the chapter Artemisinin Chemical Research in Artemisinin-Based and Other Antimalarials (2018).

1. CA Index name 3,12-epoxy-12H-pyrano[4,3-j]-1,2-benzodioxepin-10(3H)-one, octahydro-3,6,9-trimethyl-, (3R,5aS,6R,8aS,9R,12S,12aR)-.
2. Now the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences.
3. CAS Reg. No. 50906-56-4.

This was also a Molecule of the Week in 2005.

Artemisinin hazard information*

Hazard class**GHS code and hazard statement
Organic peroxides, type EH242—Heating may cause a fireChemical Safety Warning
Serious eye damage/eye irritation, category 2AH319—Causes serious eye irritationChemical Safety Warning
Specific target organ toxicity, single exposure, respiratory tract irritation, category 3H335—May cause respiratory irritationChemical Safety Warning
Short-term (acute) aquatic hazard, category 1H400—Very toxic to aquatic life Chemical Safety Warning
Long-term (chronic) aquatic hazard, category 1H410—Very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effectsChemical Safety Warning

*Compilation of multiple safety data sheets; in each class, the most hazardous category is shown.
**Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals. Explanation of pictograms.

Molecule of the Future

This molecule was suggested by a reader.

Elafibranor1 is a medication under development by Genfit (Lille, France), a company headed by Jean-François Mouney, who cofounded it in 1999. The drug is intended to treat diabetes (including insulin resistance), dyslipidemia (abnormal blood lipid concentrations), and metabolic dysfunction–associated steatotic liver disease (previously called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease).

Molecule of the Future

A 2004 international patent application, WO/2004/005243, to Genfit on substituted 1,3-diphenylprop-2-en-1-one derivatives was the original one to cover elafibranor. This was followed in 2007 by US application 2007/00325432. Last month, international application WO/2024/040132 to the US Department of Health and Human Services described combinations of interleukins with elafibranor and other medications as improved cancer treatments.

1. CAS Reg. No. 923978-27-2.
2. Now US Patent 9,221,751 (2015).

Molecule of the Future

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Artemisinin fast facts

CAS Reg. No.63968-64-9
Empirical formulaC15H22O5
Molar mass282.34 g/mol
AppearanceColorless crystals or white powder
Melting point156–157 °C
Water solubility28 g/L
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