Finding Treatments for Cancer, and the Long Road from Plants to Drugs : Exclusive Article by J. E. Williams

Friday Sep 21 | BY |
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An extract from the leaves and branches of this tree holds promise in the treatment of liver cancer.

Liver cancer is a very severe condition and not often diagnosed early enough. About two percent of all cancers are in the liver. Advanced liver cancer is among the most aggressive and difficult cancers to treat. Only about a fifth of all liver cancer patients live past one year after diagnosis.

Other cancers also commonly spread to the liver. I know, because not only have I read the statistics, but I’ve also treated many patients with terminal liver cancer.

Hepatocellular cancer is the leading type of liver cancer. It often occurs when the liver is damaged from alcohol abuse, chronic hepatitis C, pharmaceutical drugs like acetaminophen (Tylenol), as well as a number of synthetic compounds such as vinyl chloride, herbicides and others. Type 2 diabetics have an increased risk of hepatocellular cancer.

Now, recent research has found that the leaves and branches of a tropical tree can actually inhibit the growth of human liver cancer cells.

Red Spurge Shows Anti-Cancer Activity
Recent research from the College of Pharmacy of Saudi Arabia’s King Saud University found that an extract from the leaves and branches of the Red Spurge tree (Euphorbia cotinifolia L)—a small tree that grows in tropical regions such as Hawaii, Mexico, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa—inhibits the growth of liver cancer. Called the Hawaiian Red Spurge, the Mexican Shrubby Spurge, and the Caribbean Copper Plant, researchers discovered that the extract contained 17 different plant polyphenols, including two ellagitannins not found before, that have significant antioxidant activity.

The most significant finding was that the extracts inhibited the growth of human hepatocellular carcinoma cells.*

Traditional herbal healers, called curanderas, have used members of the Euphorbia family for generations in the treatment of warts (caused by a virus), tumors, ulcers, and other diseases.** Leaves of Euphorbia cotinifolia appear to be the strongest acting of these trees for the inhibition of liver cancer cells.

Plants Often Have Healing Properties
Finding that common trees have anticancer properties is nothing new. Paclitaxel is a mitotic inhibitor used in cancer chemotherapy. It was discovered in 1967 when Monroe E. Wall and Mansukh C. Wani isolated it from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, Taxus brevifolia, naming it “taxol.”

Later, scientists discovered that fungi in the tree bark synthesized paclitaxel. When developed commercially by Bristol-Myers Squibb, the generic name paclitaxel was sold under the trademark Taxol. A newer formulation is sold under the trademark name Abraxane. Paclitaxel is used to treat lung, ovarian, breast, head and neck cancer, and advanced forms of Kaposi’s sarcoma.

From Raw Material to Usable Drug
The process from yew tree bark to drug was long and tedious. In 1999, I had the good fortune to meet and discuss the discovery and drug development process with Dr. Wani. I was speaking on plant medicines from Peru at an international pharmacognosy conference. He was there to receive a distinguished science award for his discovery, a full thirty years later.

If anything is to become of the red spurge tree compound, it will also take a long time to develop a useful drug. Why does it take so long?

Plant screening is tedious and requires a team of laboratory workers with all the right, and expensive, equipment. Extraction and isolation is laborious and requires more expensive specialized equipment. Clinical trials take time, and more expense, and more time to review results, which are submitted to oversight boards, which takes more time. Papers have to be published and other scientists have to advance basic research.

Ethnobotanists can speed up the process by consulting with indigenous shamans. Jungle chemistry also took time. But instead of a few decades, it took thousands of years. A traditional shaman is a living repository of generations of predecessors, obtained through an extensive oral history. A walk through the forest with a wise shaman reveals useful plants everywhere: for lice, warts, easing birthing, to keep away bad spirits, and to use as dyes for tattooing.

By diving deep into the traditional lore, the ethnobotanist may extrapolate the most useful plants, including some that may have value in the treatment of cancer. Rather than massive random screening of plant compounds, the search is narrowed to a family of plants. That saves time, and resources.

Making the Choice to Wait…or Not
But why wait at all? Can’t we simply grind up the leaves and drink them, or have a laboratory make up a standardized extract and take it in capsules?

Here’s the rub: Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes, it causes harm.

Take Chaparral, from the creosote bush (Larrea divaricate), a shrub found primarily in California and in the northern portion of the Baja California peninsula, Mexico. Native Americans heated the leaves and applied them to the skin to treat wounds, bronchitis, coughs, skin disorders, venereal sores, warts, blemishes, and ringworm. Later, it became known as a cancer treatment.

However, it didn’t work so well. So people took more. When I lived in San Diego, I recall one man who believed it would cure his cancer, so he moved to the desert and lived in a trailer to be in close contact with his supply. He made up enormous batches of a very bitter tea, which he drank daily. He died shortly after, not from the cancer, but from poisoning his liver. What he didn’t know is that Chaparral is a dangerous herb that can cause irreversible, life-threatening liver damage and kidney damage when taken in excess.

I keep looking for new plant cures, and try out a lot of them on myself, and sometimes on patients. I also follow the research. Some useful plant medicines end up as natural remedies. Some enter the lengthy drug development process. And some we take on our own, without anymore than hearsay or marketing hype to go by.

A wise guide, such as a traditional shaman, naturopathic physician, medical herbalist, may be a better way to go…but then again, who wants to wait?

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Picture courtesy Forest & Kim Starr.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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