Mistletoe — the cheery kiss-inducing Christmas plant — contains a natural compound that has been found to have potent anti-cancer properties.
Scientists at the University of Adelaide in Australia have determined the extract of mistletoe could either assist chemotherapy or act as an alternative to drugs as a treatment for colon cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death in the Western world.
Mistletoe extract is now used as an alternative colon cancer therapy in some parts of Europe, but lack of scientific testing has kept it off the market in Australia and the United States. That new research, led by Zahra Lotfollahi, could change that.
For the study, Lotfollahi and colleagues compared the effectiveness of three types of mistletoe extract and chemotherapy on colon cancer cells and healthy intestinal cells.
In laboratory studies, she found that one of the mistletoe extracts — from a species known as Fraxini, which grows on ash trees — was more effective than chemotherapy against colon cancer cells and yet was not as harmful to healthy intestinal cells as conventional chemo. The lab tests also found the extract boosted the anti-cancer properties of the drugs.
"This is an important result because we know that chemotherapy is effective at killing healthy cells as well as cancer cells,” said Lotfollahi. “This can result in severe side effects for the patient, such as [ulcers in the mouth] and hair loss.
"Our laboratory studies have shown Fraxini mistletoe extract by itself to be highly effective at reducing the viability of colon cancer cells. At certain concentrations, Fraxini also increased the potency of chemotherapy against the cancer cells.”
Gordon Howarth, University of Adelaide professor and Cancer Council researcher, said more studies are needed before the mistletoe extract could be refined for use in cancer care.
"This is just the first important step in what we hope will lead to further research, and eventually clinical trials, of mistletoe extract in Australia," Howarth said.