Myrrh as Anti-cancer Therapy

New research shows Biblical gift may become 21st century cancer treatment

By Colette Bouchez HealthScoutNews ReporterMONDAY, Dec. 24 (HealthScoutNews) --

A Biblical gift chosen by the Three Wise Men could turn out to be the 21st century's newest anti-cancer drug. At least according to a group of Rutgers University scientists who recently experimented on the plant known as myrrh -- whose resin is a natural treatment that goes back for millennia.

"Myrrh has a long history of healing, with many references throughout the ages to its health-giving properties, with virtually no toxicity," says study co-author Mohamed M. Rafi, an assistant professor in the department of food science at Rutgers. Hailed for its anti-inflammatory and disinfectant properties, myrrh has historically been used for ailments as diverse as stomach pain, indigestion, poor circulation, wound healing, certain skin diseases and irregular menstrual cycles.

And in biblical terms, it was chosen, along with frankincense and gold, as a gift given by the Three Wise Men at the birth of Christ. Now, says Rafi, there is good evidence to show that myrrh can even tackle cancer. "So far, our studies are very promising. A compound we have isolated in myrrh does appear to be highly effective against a particular line of tumor cells found in the breast and prostate," Rafi says.

Myrrh is derived from the dried resin of desert trees, Commiphora myrrha and other species. What makes it such an exciting player in the anti-cancer field is not only how well it kills cancer cells in general, but how it kills those that are resistant to other anti-cancer drugs. "The myrrh compound definitely appears to be unique in this way; it is working where other compounds have failed," says Rafi. Myrrh is believed to work by inactivating a protein called Bcl-2, a natural factor that is overproduced by cancer cells, particularly in the breast and prostate.

When levels of this protein go too high, say experts, it not only promotes the growth of more abnormal cells, it can also make those cells resistant to anti-cancer drugs. In Rafi's laboratory research, the myrrh compound was able to inactivate the protein in a line of breast tumor cells known as MCF-7, cells that in the past were particularly resistant to treatment.

Although the myrrh compound does not appear to be as potent as other anti-cancer drugs derived from plants -- such as paclitaxel, vinblastine and vincristine -- its advantage seems to lie in the fact that it can harm cancer cells without harming healthy cells, something these other drugs don't do.

"This is very exciting news; the fact that something that is so safe can actually kill cancer cells -- this could be the basis for a very important new treatment," says Rafi. While Rafi's excitement about myrrh is beginning to spread, others caution about jumping to conclusions based only on test-tube experiments. "In reality, there has been little to no research on toxicity of myrrh in humans, particularly when used in large quantities," says Samantha Heller, a nutritionist with New York University Medical Center. What's more, Heller adds, until such time as studies cross over from the test tube to animals and finally humans, there will remain specific safety questions.

"What other proteins in the human body might this compound inactivate? Even if it is not 'toxic' per se, there could be other physiological ramifications; we just don't know," says Heller. Although myrrh is currently available in many health food stores in capsule, extract and tea form, both Rafi and Heller say the research is far too new to advocate its use as any type of anti-cancer treatment.

"I would voice the concern that people with cancer, or a family history of cancer, do not go out and start ingesting large quantities of myrrh and its related compounds precisely because we have no idea what the short- or long-term effects will be on humans," says Heller. "The research is still much too new to make any recommendations of any kind about myrrh supplements," says Rafi. Although that research on myrrh is considered unique and new, it is not without precedence in this particular family of plants.

As part of a class of compounds known as sesquiter penoids, found in number of natural products, myrrh is reportedly one of an increasing number of compounds that have anti-cancer properties, at least in the laboratory. So far, however, none has reached the marketing stage. Developing an oral anti-cancer drug from myrrh could take from five to 10 years.

Rafi's studies were published in the Nov. 26 issue of the Journal of Natural Products.


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