Artemisinin is a drug derived from the Asian plant Artemisia annua. This aromatic plant has fern-like leaves and yellow flowers.

For more than 2,000 years, it has been used to treat fevers. It’s also an effective treatment for malaria.

Other potential uses include as a treatment for inflammation or bacterial infections or headaches, though there is no scientific data to support this.

Artemisia annua is known by several other names:

  • qinghaosu
  • qing hao
  • sweet wormwood
  • sweet Annie
  • sweet sagewort
  • annual wormwood

Recently, researchers have studied the effect artemisinin has on cancer cells. However, human clinical trials and research are limited.

Researchers think artemisinin could be an alternative to more aggressive cancer therapies, with little risk of developing a drug resistance.

Cancer cells require iron to divide and multiply. Iron activates artemisinin, which creates cancer-killing free radicals.

A 2015 study revealed artemisinin was more effective in killing cancer cells when combined with iron.

In addition, University of Washington researchers found artemisinin to be a thousand times more specific in killing certain cancer cells than current treatments, sparing normal cells from being destroyed while targeting cancer cells.

In their study, researchers bound artemisinin to cancer transferrin, a cancer-killing compound. This combination “fools” cancer cells into treating the transferrin as a harmless protein. Results showed that leukemia cells were destroyed and white blood cells were left unharmed.

Though there have been success stories with this treatment, artemisinin research is still experimental, with limited data and no large clinical trials on humans.

Artemisinin can be taken orally, injected into your muscle, or inserted into the rectum as a suppository. This extract is associated with few side effects, but it shouldn’t be combined with other medication unless your doctor approves.

Some common side effects of artemisinin are:

You shouldn’t take artemisinin if you’re taking anti-seizure medications. It can induce seizures or make the medications less effective. People with gastrointestinal problems shouldn’t take artemisinin.

Artemisinin is as an effective malaria treatment and has been studied as a cancer treatment. Early studies show promising results, but research is limited. Also, no large clinical trials have been completed.

If you have cancer, you should still pursue traditional cancer treatments. Talk with your doctor about experimental treatments, such as artemisinin, to get more information specific to your case.