Following Prof Tu Youyou’s discovery of the antimalarial efficacy of artemisinin, which earned her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015, a research team led by Prof Zheng Wenhua from the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) at the University of Macau (UM) recently made important new progress in the study of this Chinese medicine.

The UM team found that artemisinin can effectively protect cells from damages induced by oxidative stress and identified the mechanism of action of artemisinin. The study shows that artemisinin has a significant neuroprotective effect, which makes it a potential compound for the treatment of central nervous system disorders.

This is the world’s first report on the neuroprotective effect of artemisinin, which has huge potential in clinical applications. The findings have been published, in late June, in Free Radical Biology and Medicine and Redox Biology, respectively. Both journals are among the most prestigious journals in the fields of free radical research and endocrinology and metabolism research.

Because of a rapidly ageing global population, the incidence of neurodegenerative diseases has increased dramatically. Developing drugs to treat these diseases, therefore, has become a key research area. However, most projects eventually failed because the compounds developed either could not cross the blood-brain barrier or caused unbearable side effects. Artemisinin is an anti-malaria medicine approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, which can get past the blood-brain barrier and only causes minor side effects. The UM team’s findings show that artemisinin has neuroprotective properties, which makes it a promising potential drug for the treatment of central nervous system disorders.

Artemisinin can also protect against injuries that occur in other cells such as pigment epithelial cells in the eyes, so it can be a potential drug for other related disorders. The discovery of artemisinin’s neuroprotective effect opened a new chapter in research on the pharmacological effects of this compound. But Prof Zheng points out that a lot of work still needs to be done before artemisinin can be translated into clinical applications.

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