Dung on a Twig or Anti-Cancer Treatment?

“Mistel” is the Anglo-Saxon word for “dung,” and “tan” is the word for “twig.” That gives us “mistel-tan, or dung-on-a-twig ” So, still in the dark? 😉 Ok, a few more hints. For the Druids, this was a sacred plant, whose name is based on the ancient observation that its seeds would appear on bird droppings (hence, the dung part of its name). It has been around perhaps for millions of years, is a semiparasitic plant that grows on trees, and provides shelter and food for a great variety of insects, birds and animals. Even though it is very toxic to humans, according to the National Cancer Institute FAQ page it has been used for centuries to treat medical conditions such as epilepsy, hypertension, headaches, menopausal symptoms, infertility, arthritis, and rheumatism. Still puzzled?

Ready? Okay, here goes! The mysterious plant is…mistletoe! Yep, the kiss-your-sweetie-under-it-at-Xmas kind of mistletoe! Why mistletoe?

Well, this is what happened. The other day I read about a mistletoe extract, Viscum Album, in a study that a friend (grazie!) sent to me on natural compounds that inhibit angiogenesis. And, as usual, almost grinning, I did an online search. And there it was, quelle surprise!: a mistletoe (extract)-MM study published in a German journal in June of 2006. The abstract can be seen at: http://tinyurl.com/2grqkf An excerpt: None of the three B lymphoma cell lines and none of the three multiple myeloma cell lines produced interleukin (IL)-6 spontaneously or after treatment with VA Qu extract. ( VA Qu, by the way, simply means Viscum Album Quercus.) The mistletoe extract inhibited the proliferation of MM cells, which eventually died. How about that? Another MM-cell killer in vitro.

Funny thing is, before reading this abstract, I had no idea that mistletoe was used as a complementary treatment for some forms of cancer here in Europe €”Germany, in particular. A recent (May 2007) International Congress on Complementary Medicine Research held in Munich (the program is available here: http://tinyurl.com/2blgny) featured nine papers on mistletoe presented by eight different researchers. (Not one on curcumin; just thought I would make a note of that 😉 ). I then did a Google search in Italian (mistletoe is vischio), too, and a lot of items popped up. Hmmm, very interesting. As I mentioned, mistletoe berries and leaves are toxic to humans (seizures and death are listed among the lovely side effects)–so don’t go chewing on the mistletoe you may have on one of the trees in your back yard–but that is NOT the case for mistletoe extracts, which have few side effects. As reported by the above-mentioned NCI FAQ page (http://tinyurl.com/22jp7j), Mistletoe is used mainly in Europe, where a variety of different extracts are manufactured and marketed as injectable prescription drugs. These extracts are not available commercially in the United States. And, further down, Mistletoe extract is studied as a possible anticancer agent because it has been shown to: Boost the immune system. Kill cancer cells in the laboratory. Protect the DNA in white blood cells, including cells that have been exposed to DNA-damaging chemotherapy drugs.

The NCI page also states that the use of mistletoe as a treatment for cancer has been investigated in more than 30 clinical studies. Reports of improved survival and/or quality of life have been common, but nearly all of the studies had major weaknesses that raise doubts about the reliability of the findings. According to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (http://tinyurl.com/35ag44), among these weaknesses were the small number of patients, inadequate documentation on mistletoe use, etc. However, that said, the U.S. Clinical Trials website currently lists a couple of mistletoe-cancer clinical trials in the U.S. and another one at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

A February 2007 study (http://tinyurl.com/336sx2) showed that a mistletoe extract prevented the suppression of natural killer, or NK, cells in colorectal cancer patients undergoing major surgery. A 2004 study (http://tinyurl.com/2a4qq6) states that a mistletoe extract called IscadorQu inhibits tumor and endothelial cell growth by delaying cell cycle progression and by causing apoptotic cell death. The antiangiogenic and apoptotic properties of a mistletoe extract are also examined in a 2001 study (http://tinyurl.com/2c83kt). This is turning into a laundry list, so enough.

I would like to end by saying that I am certainly not advocating the use of mistletoe to treat MM. One mistletoe-MM study is not enough to convince my sceptical brain. So, you would probably ask me, why did I even bother to write this post? Well, once I read the origin/meaning of the word, I just couldn’t resist! 🙂 And besides, you never know some day, our view of mistletoe might change, and the use of the following insult–“yeah, well, go poop on a stick!” (found in the online Urban Dictionary, no kidding)–might take on quite another meaning. 🙂

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