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The medicinal use of realgar (As₄S₄) and its recent development as an anticancer agent

Wu, Jinzhu, Shao, Yanbin, Liu, Jialiang, Chen, Gang, Ho, Paul C.
Journal of ethnopharmacology 2011 v.135 no.3 pp. 595-602
Food and Drug Administration, antineoplastic agents, arsenic, arsenicals, bioavailability, biomedical research, clinical trials, leukemia, mechanism of action, medical history, metabolism, metabolomics, nanoparticles, optical properties, physicians, quantum dots, toxicity, traditional medicine
ETHNOPHARMACOLOGICAL RELEVANCE: Arsenicals have been known as poisons and paradoxically as therapeutic agents. In the early 1970s, Chinese physicians from Harbin revived the medicinal use of arsenicals as anticancer agents. Notable success was observed in the treatment of acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) with arsenic trioxide (ATO). The FDA approved ATO injection in the year 2000 for the treatment of APL. In contrast, the clinical use of the other arsenical, realgar (As₄S₄), is currently much less established, though it has also long been used in medical history. According to ancient medical records and recent findings in clinical trials, realgar was found as effective as ATO, but with relatively good oral safety profiles even on chronic administration. These give realgar an advantage over ATO in maintenance treatment. Though there is increasing understanding on the mechanisms of action and metabolic profiles of ATO, similar aspects of realgar are unclear to date. MATERIALS AND METHODS: We outline the use of realgar in traditional medicines, especially in traditional Chinese medicines (TCM) from ancient times to present. The clinical and experimental observations on realgar as a therapeutic agent are described with an emphasis on those findings that may imply the rationale and future directions of realgar as a potential anticancer drug candidate. RESULTS: There is an increasing understanding in the mechanisms of action of realgar as an antileukemic agent. However, there is still sparse information on its metabolism and toxicity profiles. CONCLUSIONS: Realgar is poorly soluble in water. Recently, several types of realgar nanoparticles (NPs) have been developed. Some of these realgar NPs also possess the unique optical properties of quantum dots. The activities and bioavailability of realgar NPs are much influenced by their sizes, making realgar an interesting biomedical and pharmaceutical research candidate.