BACKGROUND: Artesunate, an artemisinin-derived monomer, was reported to inhibit Cytomegalovirus (CMV) replication. We aimed to compare the in-vitro anti-CMV activity of several artemisinin-derived monomers and newly synthesized artemisinin dimers. METHODS: Four artemisinin monomers and two novel artemisinin-derived dimers were tested for anti-CMV activity in human fibroblasts infected with luciferase-tagged highly-passaged laboratory adapted strain (Towne), and a clinical CMV isolate. Compounds were evaluated for CMV inhibition and cytotoxicity. RESULTS: Artemisinin dimers effectively inhibited CMV replication in human foreskin fibroblasts and human embryonic lung fibroblasts (EC(50) for dimer sulfone carbamate and dimer primary alcohol 0.06+/-0.00 microM and 0.15+/-0.02 microM respectively, in human foreskin fibroblasts) with no cytotxicity at concentrations required for complete CMV inhibition. All four artemisinin monomers (artemisinin, artesunate, artemether and artefanilide) shared a similar degree of CMV inhibition amongst themselves (in microM concentrations) which was significantly less than the inhibition achieved with artemisinin dimers (P<0.0001). Similar to monomers, inhibition of CMV with artemisinin dimers appeared early in the virus life cycle as reflected by decreased expression of the immediate early (IE1) protein. CONCLUSIONS: Artemisinin dimers are potent and non-cytotoxic inhibitors of CMV replication. These compounds should be studied as potential therapeutic agents for the treatment of CMV infection in humans.