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PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e42703. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042703. Epub 2012 Aug 10.

Dihydroartemisinin exerts its anticancer activity through depleting cellular iron via transferrin receptor-1.

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  • 1Key Laboratory of Nutrition and Metabolism, Institute for Nutritional Sciences, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China.


Artemisinin and its main active metabolite dihydroartemisinin, clinically used antimalarial agents with low host toxicity, have recently shown potent anticancer activities in a variety of human cancer models. Although iron mediated oxidative damage is involved, the mechanisms underlying these activities remain unclear. In the current study, we found that dihydroartemisinin caused cellular iron depletion in time- and concentration-dependent manners. It decreased iron uptake and disturbed iron homeostasis in cancer cells, which were independent of oxidative damage. Moreover, dihydroartemisinin reduced the level of transferrin receptor-1 associated with cell membrane. The regulation of dihydroartemisinin to transferrin receptor-1 could be reversed by nystatin, a cholesterol-sequestering agent but not the inhibitor of clathrin-dependent endocytosis. Dihydroartemisinin also induced transferrin receptor-1 palmitoylation and colocalization with caveolin-1, suggesting a lipid rafts mediated internalization pathway was involved in the process. Also, nystatin reversed the influences of dihydroartemisinin on cell cycle and apoptosis related genes and the siRNA induced downregulation of transferrin receptor-1 decreased the sensitivity to dihydroartemisinin efficiently in the cells. These results indicate that dihydroartemisinin can counteract cancer through regulating cell-surface transferrin receptor-1 in a non-classical endocytic pathway, which may be a new action mechanism of DHA independently of oxidative damage.

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