'Gift of the Magi' bears anti-cancer agents, researchers suggest

December 04, 2001

Researchers have identified a compound in myrrh, one of the gifts presented to Jesus by the Three Wise Men, that they believe could be developed into a potent anticancer agent. The compound, which kills cancer cells in the laboratory, shows particular promise for the prevention and treatment of breast and prostate cancer, according to the researchers.

The finding is the first to identify an anticancer compound in myrrh, they say. It appears in the current (Nov. 26) print edition of the Journal of Natural Products, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. It was published in the Web version of the journal on Oct. 25.

"It's a very exciting discovery," says Mohamed M. Rafi, Ph.D., one of the co-researchers in the study and an assistant professor in the department of food science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "I'm optimistic that this compound can be developed into an anticancer drug," he says. The researcher cautions that the compound has not yet been tested in animals or humans.

As part of a larger search for anticancer compounds from plants, the researchers obtained extracts from a particular species of myrrh plant (Commiphora myrrha) and tested it against a human breast tumor cell line (MCF-7) known to be resistant to anticancer drugs. Research data indicated that the extract killed all of the cancer cells in laboratory dishes.

Further investigations to isolate the active component of the extract found it to be a unique and previously unknown compound belonging to a class called sesquiterpenoids, which are typically found in natural products. Rafi indicated that an increasing number of compounds in this class have been identified as having cytotoxic properties against cancer cell lines, but none has reached the marketing stage.

The myrrh compound appears to kill cancer cells by inactivating a specific protein, called Bcl-2, which is overproduced by cancer cells, particularly in the breast and prostate, the researcher says. Overproduction of this protein is believed to promote the growth of cancer cells and make cells more resistant to chemotherapy. As cancer is influenced by many mechanisms, the investigators are now in the process of trying to determine whether the compound also has other mechanisms of inhibitory action against cancer cells.

On the basis of initial laboratory tests, the compound does not appear to be as strong as conventional chemotherapy drugs, such as paclitaxel (Taxol®), vinbalstine and vincristine, which are known to be potent cancer killers. These drugs are highly toxic to healthy cells, however, says Rafi.

The researcher estimates that the compound tested is 100 times less potent than paclitaxel. The compound appears to fall within the moderate strength range of other recently discovered phytochemicals (isolated from plants), including resveratrol (from grapes), genestein (from soy) lycopene (from tomatoes) and catechins (from tea). The good news is that these compounds all come from food and are unlikely to be toxic to healthy cells, which could mean fewer side effects as a chemotherapy agent, the researcher says.

Once the compound is better understood, it's possible that its potency could eventually be increased, the researcher says, who envisions that it could be developed as an oral drug. Rafi predicts that there may be other compounds in myrrh that are more potent than the current anticancer candidate though yet to be isolated from the plant.

Developing any anticancer drug from myrrh may take five to ten years, says Rafi. Animal studies of the current compound are planned. The researchers are in the process of filing a patent on the anticancer compound.

Myrrh is the dried resin obtained from one of several trees of the genus Commiphora. The bitter-tasting, fragrant resin has been used for thousands of years as an ointment, perfume, incense and embalming fluid.

As a medicinal compound, it has been used to kill pain, heal wounds and neutralize bad breath. There is some documentation that some ancient civilizations may have even used the plant to combat cancer. If so, the current study represents the first scientific evidence of its effectiveness, the researchers say.

Today, myrrh can be found in health food stores as an ingredient in natural toothpaste and mouthwash, where it is used as an alternative to fluoride to fight dental decay. It is also available in capsule form, as a tea, and as an extract.
-end-
Funding for this study was provided by Rutger's New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station and the New Jersey Commission for Science and Technology.

The online version of the research paper cited above was initially published Oct. 25 on the journal's Web site. Journalists can arrange access to this site by sending an e-mail to newsroom@acs.org or calling the contact person for this release.

Mohamed M. Rafi, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the department of food science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Chi-Tang Ho, Ph.D., is a professor in the department of food science at the university and lead investigator in the study.

American Chemical Society

Related Prostate Cancer Articles from Brightsurf:

Low risk of cancer spread on active surveillance for early prostate cancer
Men undergoing active surveillance for prostate cancer have very low rates - one percent or less - of cancer spread (metastases) or death from prostate cancer, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Urology®, an Official Journal of the American Urological Association (AUA).

ESMO 2020: Breast cancer drug set to transform prostate cancer treatment
A drug used to treat breast and ovarian cancer can extend the lives of some men with prostate cancer and should become a new standard treatment for the disease, concludes a major trial which is set to change clinical practice.

Major trial shows breast cancer drug can hit prostate cancer Achilles heel
A drug already licensed for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers is more effective than targeted hormone therapy at keeping cancer in check in some men with advanced prostate cancer, a major clinical trial reports.

The Lancet: Prostate cancer study finds molecular imaging could transform management of patients with aggressive cancer
Results from a randomised controlled trial involving 300 prostate cancer patients find that a molecular imaging technique is more accurate than conventional medical imaging and recommends the scans be introduced into routine clinical practice.

Common genetic defect in prostate cancer inspires path to new anti-cancer drugs
Researchers found that, in prostate cancer, a mutation leading to the loss of one allele of a tumor suppressor gene known as PPP2R2A is enough to worsen a tumor caused by other mutations.

First prostate cancer therapy to target genes delays cancer progression
For the first time, prostate cancer has been treated based on the genetic makeup of the cancer, resulting in delayed disease progression, delayed time to pain progression, and potentially extending lives in patients with advanced, metastatic prostate cancer, reports a large phase 3 trial.

Men taking medications for enlarged prostate face delays in prostate cancer diagnosis
University of California San Diego School of Medicine researchers report that men treated with medications for benign prostatic hyperplasia (enlarged prostate) experienced a two-year delay in diagnosis of their prostate cancer and were twice as likely to have advanced disease upon diagnosis.

CNIO researchers confirm links between aggressive prostate cancer and hereditary breast cancer
The study has potential implications for families with members suffering from these types of tumours who are at an increased risk of developing cancer.

Distinguishing fatal prostate cancer from 'manageable' cancer now possible
Scientists at the University of York have found a way of distinguishing between fatal prostate cancer and manageable cancer, which could reduce unnecessary surgeries and radiotherapy.

Researchers find prostate cancer drug byproduct can fuel cancer cells
A genetic anomaly in certain men with prostate cancer may impact their response to common drugs used to treat the disease, according to new research at Cleveland Clinic.

Read More: Prostate Cancer News and Prostate Cancer Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.