Artemisinin compounds sensitize cancer cells to ferroptosis by regulating iron homeostasis

Guo Qing Chen, Fahad A. Benthani, Jiao Wu, Deguang Liang, Zhaoxiang Bian*, Xuejun Jiang*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

301 Citations (Scopus)


The antimalarial drug artemisinin and its derivatives have been explored as potential anticancer agents, but their underlying mechanisms are controversial. In this study, we found that artemisinin compounds can sensitize cancer cells to ferroptosis, a new form of programmed cell death driven by iron-dependent lipid peroxidation. Mechanistically, dihydroartemisinin (DAT) can induce lysosomal degradation of ferritin in an autophagy-independent manner, increasing the cellular free iron level and causing cells to become more sensitive to ferroptosis. Further, by associating with cellular free iron and thus stimulating the binding of iron-regulatory proteins (IRPs) with mRNA molecules containing iron-responsive element (IRE) sequences, DAT impinges on IRP/IRE-controlled iron homeostasis to further increase cellular free iron. Importantly, in both in vitro and a mouse xenograft model in which ferroptosis was triggered in cancer cells by the inducible knockout of GPX4, we found that DAT can augment GPX4 inhibition-induced ferroptosis in a cohort of cancer cells that are otherwise highly resistant to ferroptosis. Collectively, artemisinin compounds can sensitize cells to ferroptosis by regulating cellular iron homeostasis. Our findings can be exploited clinically to enhance the effect of future ferroptosis-inducing cancer therapies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)242-254
Number of pages13
JournalCell Death and Differentiation
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2020

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Cell Biology


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