Artemisinin is a sesquiterpene compound of plant origin. It has a low molecular weight, and it contains five oxygen atoms, two in a lactone function, one is part of a seven membered ring system and two forms a peroxide function bridging over the seven-membered ring. It is a highly energetic molecule prone to lose its activity if circumstances permit. Reduction of its lactone function into dihydroartemisinin makes derivatization easy. Esterification and ether formation contribute to stability. Dihydroartemisinin exists preferably in a beta epimeric format but flip-flops with the alpha epimer. Solvation effects play a role. In doing so, open forms are created and they contribute to the instability, both of the peroxide and of the seven-membered ring. Artemisinins constitute a remarkable class of compounds which display instability both biologically and chemically due to the presence of various functional groups. Activity ranges from a wonderful action against a series of parasites, in particular malaria and schistosomiasis, to bacteria, fungi and selected viruses. The latest developments indicate a potential use in adjuvant cancer chemotherapy. The built-in chemical instability, necessary for biological action, causes serious pharmaceutical problems and only a restricted number of derivatives are useful. Problems are accelerated under tropical conditions and the basic active drug dihydroartemisinin cannot be used as such since it is prone to accelerated breakdown into a series of inactive products. The pitfalls of chemical instability and pharmaceutical stability are discussed in relation to the current uses of the drugs.
Keywords: Artemisia annua, Dihydroartemisinin, Artesunate, Arteether, Plasmodium falciparum
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