Artemisinin – also known as Qinghoasu – is produced by the sweet wormwood tree Artemisia annua. For hundreds of years, unaware of its potential in treating cancer and malaria, the sweet wormwood tree was used in ancient Chinese medicine to treat fevers, which we now know were caused by the Malarial parasite. It wasn’t until 1972 that the Chinese scientist Youyou Too and her collaborators isolated the active anti-cancer and anti-malarial ingredient from Artemisia annua, Artemisinin. The active portion of Artemisinin is an oxygen-oxygen bond that forms free radicals when exposed to iron. These free radicals then disrupt cellular function, thereby inducing cell death. In the case of cancer cells, research has shown that most types of cancer cells have increased intake of iron compared to non-cancerous cells. As a result, iron reacts with Artemisinin, producing free radicals, inducing apoptosis, and causing cell death. Therefore, Artemisinin may also be effective when treating cancer. However, despite Artemisinin’s effect on cancer and malaria, there are disadvantages to its usage. Since Artemisinin constitutes less than only about 1% dry weight of the sweet wormwood plant it has limited availability in developing countries and it is very costly to extract. Additionally, the original Artemisinin molecule has trouble reaching its target due to its limited bioavailability. Therefore, we have synthesized analogues of Artemisinin that have the same oxygen-oxygen bond as the original Artemisinin molecule but are smaller and inexpensive to make. This Summer, my lab and I have been testing the novel analogues on A549 lung cancer, MCF7 breast cancer, BEAS-2B normal lung, and MCF10A normal mammary cell lines to see the effect of the analogues on inducing cell death. We have witnessed an increase in cell apoptosis in cancerous cells and not in normal cells and will continue testing the various analogues to find the one with the greatest efficacy at the lowest dose.
Realities of Research
In my journey as a researcher, I have learned a lot about the advantages and downfalls of researching. Before entering Benedictine University, there was a stigma in my mind towards researching. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in a lab because the idea of this sounded monotonous and unpleasing. Once I began researching, I realized the importance of it, making me love what I do now. Witnessing the novel drugs killing cancer cells was fascinating and exciting because I was able to make useful discoveries. Furthermore, I have gained knowledge on how to maintain various cancer and normal cell lines using proper cell culture protocol. I have seen just how easily cells can become contaminated and the headache involved with sterilizing everything and starting over. I have learned to follow safety protocols better to prevent future contamination. Additionally, I have become fluent in the usage of various lab equipment and techniques including the flow cytometer, absorbance reader, fluorescence microscope, Western Blotting, and protein assays. Having to perform some of these experiments multiple times due to errors I’ve made has helped me better my technique. Although not all the experiments I completed turned out how I wanted due to human error, the experiments that went correctly supported my original hypothesis.
Life of a Scientist
The day in the life of a scientist begins early in the morning. I wake up, get ready, and am in the lab by 9:00 am daily. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I begin the day by placing media to feed the cells in the water bath. While the media is warming up, I check confluency of the cells to determine whether I need to split them or just feed them. From there, I feed or split cells, clean the hood, and continue with the rest of the day. I then go to my research mentor’s office to determine which experiments need to be completed first, conduct those experiments, and end the day discussing the results. The best part of being a student researcher is the flexibility. I can do so many unique experiments with the cells I am growing, allowing me to test various things simultaneously. Additionally, I have a phenomenal research team and we enjoy conversing with one another. The worst part of researching is the long hours spent in the lab. It does get exhausting to be in the lab all day, however, with my great research group I find ways to help the time pass by. Researching has shown me the importance of interdisciplinary work with the collaboration between the organic chemistry lab and my lab, as well as the importance of effective communication.