Traditional Chinese medicine commands a unique position among all traditional medicines because of its 5000 years of history. Our own interest in natural products from traditional Chinese medicine was triggered in the 1990s, by Artemisinin-type sesquiterpene lactones from Artemisia annua L. As demonstrated in recent years, this class of compounds has activity against malaria, cancer cells, and schistosomiasis. Interestingly, the bioactivity of Artemisinin and its semisynthetic derivative artesunate is even broader and includes the inhibition of certain viruses, such as human cytomegalovirus and other members of the Herpesviridae family (e.g., herpes simplex virus type 1 and Epstein-Barr virus), hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, and bovine viral diarrhea virus. Analysis of the complete profile of the pharmacological activities and molecular modes of action of Artemisinin and artesunate and their performance in clinical trials will further elucidate the full antimicrobial potential of these versatile pharmacological tools from nature.
Artemisinin is a natural product derived from the Chinese herb Artemisia annua (figure 1). During the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh asked Mao Zedong for help, because more North Vietnamese soldiers were dying from malaria than from armed conflicts. The Chinese government launched a program to find new antimalarial drugs. As a result, Tu Youyou, a Chinese scientist from the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Beijing, China), identified Artemisinin as the active compound of A. annua in 1972 . Its overwhelming antimalarial activity was demonstrated in numerous clinical studies by Chinese and Western scientists. Despite this success, the true potential of Artemisinin was underestimated in the Western world for many years . In the meantime, the World Health Organization officially recommends Artemisinin and its derivatives, such as artesunate and artemether, for the treatment of malaria, particularly as a part of combination therapies with other antimalarial drugs.
After being used in traditional Chinese medicine for 2 millennia, 1 of the “gems” of traditional Chinese medicine's treasure box has been rediscovered during recent years. Artemisinin is certainly one of the most promising natural products
investigated in the past 2 decades. With regard to malaria, artemesinin has the potential to considerably contribute to a change in the desperate situation that the world is facing. Fortunately, the value of this compound is not limited to the treatment of malaria, and a wealth of studies have demonstrating the activity of Artemisinin and its derivatives against cancer cells, schistosomiasis, and as reviewed here, various viral diseases.