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Myrrh may have potent anticancer effects

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J., Dec. 24 (UPI) -- A recently discovered compound in the golden herb myrrh -- one of the legendary gifts of the magi presented to Jesus by the Three Wise Men -- may prove to have potent anti-cancer effects against tumors resistant to other drugs.

"It's a very exciting discovery," said researcher Mohamed Rafi, a food scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. "I'm optimistic that this compound can be developed into an anti-cancer drug."

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Rafi cautioned, however, that the myrrh compound has not been tested in animals or humans yet.

Myrrh is a yellow, bitter-tasting resin used for thousands of years to kill pain and treat stomach ailments and diarrhea. The fragrant gum has also been used in perfumes, embalming fluid and even bad breath remedies.

As part of a larger search for anti-cancer agents in plants, the researchers tested a colorless oil extracted from a species of myrrh from China against human breast tumor cells resistant to other anti-cancer drugs. They found the oil killed all of the cells in laboratory dishes.

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The active component of the extract is a unique and previously unknown compound belonging to a class of chemicals known as sesquiterpenoids that are typically found in natural products. It appears to kill cancer cells by inactivating a key protein overproduced by tumors, particularly those of the breast and prostate. Too much of this protein, called Bcl-2, is believed to promote cancer cell growth and increase their resistance to chemotherapy.

The compound appears to fall within the moderate strength range of other recently discovered anti-cancer chemicals from plants, such as grapes, soy, tomatoes and tea. The myrrh agent does not appear as strong as conventional chemotherapy drugs which are highly toxic to healthy cells. Rafi said these particular plant chemicals are unlikely to be toxic to healthy cells because they all come from food, which could mean fewer side effects for cancer patients.

"You can eat this and not have any side-effects, and that is not something you can do with any other chemotherapy drug," Rafi said in an interview with United Press International. "Myrrh is widely used as a food additive in the Middle East, India and China. It's in the food chain."

Animal studies are currently planned for the myrrh compound. Developing any anticancer drug from myrrh may take five to ten years, Rafi said.

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Once the compound is better understood, it is possible that its potency could be increased. The investigators are in the process of trying to determine whether the compound has other inhibitory mechanisms against cancer cells. In addition, Rafi predicted that there may be other compounds in myrrh more potent than the anti-cancer agent found so far.

"It's interesting that myrrh has come up... you have similar traits in rosemary and cherry powder," commented Ann Marie Hill, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research in Trenton. "We're finding that many botanical materials have anticancer capabilities. Now it's time to gather the evidence and make sure what does work and what doesn't work, so that people interested in complementary medicines can make informed decisions. Over 80 percent of cancer patients use some type of natural product in their treatment, which tells you why getting some information about these natural products is so important."

The researchers reported their findings in the Journal of Natural Products.

(Reported by Charles Choi in New York)

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