The Kiss of Death to Cancer?

Colon cancer cells killed with mistletoe extract from ash tree

(RxWiki News) You’re prime pickings for landing a kiss when you stand under the mistletoe. It’s a holiday tradition. Of course, if you eat the mistletoe you could fall headfirst into the punchbowl and die. This fact hasn’t been lost on cancer cells.

Mistletoe that grows on ash trees is deadly to colon cancer cells and kind to healthy cells. A new study suggests this might mean that mistletoe could be used instead of chemotherapy - or an extract from the plant might boost the effectiveness of colon cancer chemotherapy.

"Get caught under the mistletoe this year."

Researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia are studying the anticancer features of mistletoe. In Europe, colon cancer patients can use extract from mistletoe. However, because the medicinal value of this plant – with its bright red berries – hasn’t been studied enough, it’s not approved for use in the US and Australia.

In this study, which hasn’t yet been published, a health sciences student at the University of Adelaide tested how well three different types of mistletoe worked on colon cancer cells.

Because chemotherapy can kill healthy as well as sick cells, Zahra Lotfollahi also compared how mistletoe and chemotherapy affected healthy intestinal cells.

Mistletoe is considered a parasitic plant because it sucks out nutrients from trees it latches onto. The type of mistletoe that grows on ash trees is called Fraxini. This species of mistletoe is what Ms. Lotfollahi found to be the most effective in terms of its ability to poison and kill cancer cells and its gentleness on healthy cells.

Interestingly, Fraxini was even more powerful than the chemotherapy agent was in poisoning cancer cells, while being sweet to healthy cells, the study found.

Ms. Lotfollahi said, Fraxini was the only one that showed a reduced impact on healthy intestinal cells. This might mean that Fraxini is a potential candidate for increased toxicity against cancer, while also reducing potential side effects. However, more laboratory testing is needed to further validate this work." she said in a statement.

There are about 1,300 different species of mistletoe around the world. So the work isn’t over.

One of Ms. Lotfollahi's supervisors, Gordon Howarth, PhD, a Cancer Council Senior Research Fellow, said, "Although mistletoe grown on the ash tree was the most effective of the three extracts tested, there is a possibility that mistletoe grown on other, as yet untested, trees or plants could be even more effective."

"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," Dr. Howarth said in a press release.

Before being published in a peer-reviewed journal, all research is considered preliminary.

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Review Date: 
December 11, 2012