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Crit Rev Toxicol. 2010 May;40(5):405-21. doi: 10.3109/10408441003610571.

Toxicity of the antimalarial artemisinin and its dervatives.

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Department of Pharmaceutical Biology, Institute of Pharmacy and Biochemistry, University of Mainz, Mainz, Germany.


As long as no effective malaria vaccine is available, chemotherapy belongs to the most important weapons fighting malaria. One of the most promising new drug developments is the sesquiterpene artemisinin (ARS) and its derivatives, e.g., artemether, arteether, and sodium artesunate. Large clinical studies and meta-analyses did not show serious side effects, although proper monitoring of adverse effects in developing countries might not be a trivial task. There is a paucity of large-scale clinical trials suitable to detect rare but significant toxicity. Therefore, a final and definitive statement on the safety of artemisinins still cannot be made. In contrast, animal experiments show considerable toxicity upon application of artemisinins. In the present review, the authors give a comprehensive overview on toxicity studies in cell culture and in animals (mice, rats, rabbits, dogs, monkeys) as well as on toxicity reported in human clinical trials. The authors emphasize the current knowledge on neurotoxicity, embryotoxicity, genotoxicity, hemato- and immunotoxicity, cardiotoxicity, nephrotoxicity, and allergic reactions. The lesson learned from animal and human studies is that long-term availability rather than short-term peak concentrations of artemisinins cause toxicity. Rapid elimination of artemisinins after oral intake represents a relatively safe route of administration compared to delayed drug release after intramuscular (i.m.) injection. This explains why considerable toxicities were found in the majority of animal experiments, but not in human studies. In addition, there are drug-related differences, i.e., intramuscular application of artemether or arteether, but not to artesunate, which is safe and gives good profiles after i.m. administration in severe malaria. Although there is no need to increase doses of artemisinins for uncomplicated malaria, this has to be taken into account for cerebellar involvement in severe malaria. It might also be important in determining dose limitations for treatment of other diseases such as cancer.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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