Experiments at University of Kentucky show that a plant grown mainly in the state has promise in treating deadly ovarian cancer

Patrick Perry of the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment holds an Artemisia annua seedling grown at UK’s Spindletop Farm. (UK photo by Pete Comparoni)

By Jenni Ho

University of Kentucky

A new study at UK’s Markey Cancer Center shows that Artemisia annua, a plant grown mainly in Kentucky to produce a substance used to treat malaria, shows promise in treating ovarian cancer.

The study, published in Diagnostics, found that artesunate, synthesized from artemisia, kills ovarian cancer cells in multiple systems designed to model possible clinical trials.

Ovarian cancer has a high death rate. It accounts for 1.3% of new cancer cases, but is predicted to be responsible for 2.3% of cancer deaths this year. The national death rate is about 60 percent, and Kentucky’s rate is higher because Kentucky women are screened for it less than the national average.

The standard of care for advanced ovarian cancer is chemotherapy with carboplatin and paclitaxel. The researchers determined that artesunate, in combination with those two drugs and by itself, has anti-cancer activity at concentrations that are achievable in clinic patients.

“Artesunate is historically used as an anti-malarial, but with emerging evidence, it demonstrates its anti-cancer activity,” said Jill Kolesar, a pharmacy professor and administrative director of Markey’s Precision Medicine Clinic. “This supports bringing it into the clinic and we hope to have positive outcomes for these patients, based on our preclinical data.”

Kentucky is the only state growing substantial quantities of artemisia, so it could become a new epicenter for growing the plant worldwide. The plant’s growth process is similar to that of tobacco.

“We’re growing Artemisia on Kentucky farms, studying it in our Kentucky lab, and now moving it into Kentucky clinics,” Kolesar said. “Potentially improving the economy of the state and developing a cancer treatment for your patients – that’s truly a dream.”
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