Two traditional African medicines observed to kill cancer cells – study

Cancer remains as one of the leading causes of death in the world today. A comprehensive study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine sought to determine which of 31 plants used in Nigerian ethnomedicine can serve as a potential alternative treatment for the condition.

More than eight million people die of cancer worldwide, with more getting diagnosed with one form of the disease every year. In 2012 alone, 14.1 million new cases were added to the number of sufferers.

Modern medicine offers several methods to address cancer, but these are held back by some factors, first of which has to do with economics. Cancer is not cheap. Conventional treatment methods are too expensive that lower-income sufferers often get discouraged from seeking them in the first place. In many developing countries, cancer is known as a “rich man’s disease,” a reputation further complicated by the absence of treatment procedures, facilities, specialists, and medications in rural areas.

But the biggest flaw of modern cancer treatment has to do with its safety. The methods used to eradicate cancer cells are notable for being unsafe for the patient as well. Chemotherapy, the most popular cure for cancer, involves pumping toxic chemicals into the body. These toxins kill indiscriminately, poisoning cancerous and healthy cells alike. Patients going through chemo bear the brunt of not just their disease, but also the treatment’s side effects, which include fatigue, hair loss, impaired immunity, organ damage, sexual dysfunction, and even more pain, among others.

Radiation therapy, another popular treatment approach, is no better. This process involves shooting radiation directly into the cancerous tumor. It does not cause indiscriminate damage unlike chemo, but radiation burns are the least of a patient’s worries. Depending on the site of one’s cancer, side effects may include fatigue, tooth decay, organ damage, sexual problems, and hormonal issues, among others. (Related: Scientists have discovered a way to destroy cancer tumors using nothing but sound waves.)

Given these, it’s no surprise that many are turning into cheaper, more effective, and less risky methods to treat cancer. With science renewing interest in ethnomedicine, people are beginning to wonder if there is more to natural treatments than was previously believed.

Reviewing Nigerian medicinal plants for anti-cancer properties

The study was comprehensive in that it did not look at just one or two medicinal plants, but 31 in total. The researchers wanted to determine which plants had the most potent cytotoxic activity on rhabdomyosarcoma (RD) cancer cell lines. To determine this, they used an MTT assay and a brine shrimp lethality assay (BSLA), a test that determines the toxicity of a substance based on how effectively it kills brine shrimps.

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a type of cancer that affects the soft tissue and is known to affect people below 20 years old. It rarely occurs in the U.S. (about five cases per million children in a year), but in the researchers’ home country, it is one of the leading cause of death among children.

The researchers discovered that among the extracts tested, those of Macaranga barteri and Calliandra portoricensis had the most significant cytotoxic activity on both the RD cell line and the brine shrimps. When examined further, they found that the dichloromethane fraction of M. barteri and the ethyl acetate fraction of C. portoricensis were more effective than cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy drug, by up to six and four times respectively.

Furthermore, both extracts exhibited a high selectivity index, which means that unlike normal chemo drugs, they acted against cancer cells while sparing healthy cells.

The researchers noted that while 11 plants showed cytotoxic activity in their research, only those two exceeded the effects of cyclophosphamide as a cancer cell killer.

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