Artemisinin derivatives, the current cornerstone of malaria treatment, possess also anti-angiogenic and anti-tumor activity. Hypoxia plays a crucial role both in severe malaria (as a consequence of the cytoadherence of infected erythrocytes to the microvasculature) and in cancer (due to the restricted blood supply in the growing tumor mass). However, the consequences of hypoxia onto the effects of artemisinins is under-researched. This study aimed at assessing how the inhibition of microvascular endothelial cell (HMEC-1) growth induced by dihydroartemisinin (DHA, an antimalarial drug and the active metabolite of currently in-use artemisinins) is affected by oxygen tension. Low doses of DHA (achieved in the patients' plasma when treating malaria) were more inhibitory in hypoxia, whereas high doses (required for anti-angiogenic or anti-tumor activity) were more effective in normoxia. The peroxide bridge is essential for cellular toxicity (deoxyDHA was inactive). High doses of DHA caused HMEC-1 apoptosis and G2 cell cycle arrest. Effects were mediated by the generation of oxidative stress as demonstrated by DCF-DA fluorescence and membrane lipid peroxidation analysis. Overall, these results suggest that DHA inhibition of endothelial cell growth is related to the level of tissue oxygenation and drug concentration. This should be considered when studying both the effects of artemisinin derivatives as antimalarials and the potential therapeutic applications of these drugs as anti-tumor agents.
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