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Six Plants Native to Southeast Asia Are Promising Cancer Warriors

Conserving these indigenous plants provides a rich source of therapeutic agents for anti-cancer drug discovery.

A team of researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS) has discovered that the Bandicoot Berry (Leea indica), South African leaf (Vernonia amygdalina) and Simpleleaf Chastetree (Vitex trifolia), which are favourite nectaring plants of butterflies, do more than attract butterflies.

The leaves of these plants have been found to be effective in stopping the growth of seven types of cancers, namely breast, cervical, colon, leukemia, liver, ovarian and uterine cancers.

In this study that is led by Associate Professor Koh Hwee Ling from the Department of Pharmacy at the NUS Faculty of Science, three other medicinal plants had also demonstrated anti-cancer properties.

The results of the study, which was published in Journal of Ethnopharmacology, highlight the importance of conserving these indigenous plants as resources for drug discovery and understanding these natural resources.

Assoc Prof Koh says medicinal plants have been used for the treatment of diverse ailments since ancient times, but their anti-cancer properties have not been studied well.

The three-year study conducted from 2010 to 2013, documented the different types of medicinal plants that grow in Singapore and the region. They also documented medicinal plants which were reported to be used for the treatment of cancer. These findings were first reported in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology in 2014.

The researchers reviewed the pharmacological properties of the tropical plants that were reported to be used for cancer, and they selected seven promising plant species for further investigation. These medicinal plants are Bandicoot Berry (Leea indica), Sabah Snake Grass (Clinacanthus nutans), Fool’s Curry Leaf (Clausena lansium), Seven Star Needle (Pereskia bleo), Black Face General (Strobilanthes crispus), South African Leaf (Vernonia amygdalina), and Simpleleaf Chastetree (Vitex trifolia).

Among the seven plants, the extracts of the leaves of the Bandicoot Berry, South African Leaf and Simpleleaf Chastetree were found to be promising against the seven types of cancers. The leaf extracts of the Seven Star Needle had performed well against cervical, colon, liver, ovarian and uterine cancer cells. The leaf extracts of two other plants – Fool’s Curry Leaf and Black Face General – had demonstrated efficacy against some cancer cell lines, too.

“What we did not expect is that the leaf extract of the Sabah Snake Grass was not very effective in inhibiting growth of cancer cells. In our earlier study, this plant was frequently reported to be used by cancer patients in the region. One possibility could be that it may be helping cancer patients in other ways, rather than killing the cancer cells directly,” shared Assoc Prof Koh.

While the results of this study provided the scientific basis for the traditional practice of using tropical medicinal plants to fight cancer, the research team stressed that people should not self-medicate without consulting qualified practitioners.

Besides studying the active components in the tropical medicinal plants, the NUS research team will also be evaluating their other pharmacological effects in order to understand the use of selected plants by patients and the public, and to further harness the benefits of medicinal plants for safe and efficacious use. They also hope to collaborate with clinical and industry partners to further their research. [APBN]