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Christmas Plant May Be Natural Alternative to Chemotherapy

mistletoe, complementary and alternative medicine

Mistletoe is a commonly used Christmas decoration, but its extract has also been used for many years in Europe as a medicinal therapy. Researchers in Australia are studying the Christmas plant’s effectiveness on cancer, as it seems it might be able to kill cancer cells, becoming a potential complementary therapy or alternative to chemotherapy.

Zahra Lotfollahi, a graduate student at the University of Adelaide, compared three types of mistletoe extracts in a laboratory study using colon cancer cells. One species of mistletoe in particular, known as Fraxini which grows on ash trees, was highly effective in killing colon cancer cells in a cell culture – even more potent than chemotherapy drugs.

"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,” says Ms. Lotfollahi.

Yet, the natural mistletoe therapy was gentler on the healthy cells as compared to the chemotherapeutic drugs, making it a potential candidate for an alternative therapy to prevent chemo toxicity. "This is an important result because we know that chemotherapy is effective at killing healthy cells as well as cancer cells. This can result in severe side effects for the patient, such as oral mucositis (ulcers in the mouth) and hair loss," she adds.

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"Mistletoe extract has been considered a viable alternative therapy overseas for many years, but it's important for us to understand the science behind it," says Professor Gordon Howarth, a Cancer Council Senior Research Fellow. The natural extract is authorized for use by colon cancer sufferers in Europe, but not in the US or Australia due to a lack of scientific testing.

Mistletoe is thought to strengthen the immune system while minimizing the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, thereby improving survival and increasing quality of life during treatment. Lotfollahi says the plant contains several biologically active substances which could kill cancer cells, but how the compounds work is not clearly understood.

A previous review of 13 research studies involving mistletoe found only a weak link between the extract and its benefit to cancer patients.

Warning: The findings of this study do not suggest that cancer patients begin eating their Christmas decorations in hopes of finding a cure. Live plants such as mistletoe, holly berries, and poinsettias are potentially toxic. Patients should wait until further research is done to confirm the findings before attempting any natural remedies for their disease.

University of Adelaide (2012, November 30). “Could mistletoe give the kiss of death to cancer?”