26 November 2002
By Judy Siegel
JERUSALEM (December 9) - Myrrh, one
of the most important perfumes in ancient times that is mentioned
11 times in the Bible (including six times in the Song of Songs)
has been shown to have the potential of a powerful anti-cancer
Researchers at New Jersey's Rutgers University identified the active
ingredient in myrrh and shown that it kills cancer cells in laboratory
conditions, but it has not yet been tested on animals or clinically
Dr. Mohamed Rafi, one of the co-researchers in the study and an
assistant professor in the university's department of food science,
said the active ingredient in myrrh shows particular promise for
the prevention and treatment of breast and prostate cancer.
The findings appear in the
current (November 26) print edition of the Journal of Natural Products,
a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society, the world's
largest scientific society.
The bitter-tasting, fragrant
resin (known as mor in Hebrew) has been used for thousands of years
as an ointment, perfume, incense, and embalming fluid. It is the
first perfume mentioned in the Bible (Exodus 30:23-25) among ingredients
from which the holy anointing oil used in the Tabernacle was prepared.
The name of Mordechai (in the
Book of Esther) is believed to come from mor. As a medicinal compound,
it has been used to kill pain, heal wounds, and neutralize bad
breath. Today, myrrh can be found in health food stores as an ingredient
in natural toothpaste and mouthwash, where it is used as an alternative
to fluoride to fight dental decay. It is also available in capsule
form, as a tea, and as an extract.
There is some documentation
that some ancient civilizations may have even used the plant to
combat cancer. If so, the current study represents the first scientific
evidence of its effectiveness, the researchers say. Developing
any anticancer drug from myrrh may take five to 10 years, says
Rafi. Animal studies of the current compound are planned. The researchers
are in the process of filing a patent on the anticancer compound.
Asked to comment, Prof. Raphael
Mechoulam of the Hebrew University School of Pharmacy's department
of medical chemistry and natural products told The Jerusalem Post
that the finding is very interesting. "Jerusalem balsam, which
contains myrrh, has been used for thousands of years - even today
in monasteries - in salve form to treat wounds and growths. We
have been using myrrh in our lab on wounds, too. However, one must
remember that numerous natural substances have been found in the
lab to have an effect on cancer cells, and most do not work in
humans. Nevertheless, this is an important, reputable journal,
and the research should be pursued in further studies," said
Mechoulam, who is best known for his work on cannabis.
As part of a larger search
for anticancer compounds from plants, the researchers obtained
extracts from a particular species of myrrh plant (Commiphora myrrha)
and tested it against a human breast tumor cell line (MCF-7) known
to be resistant to anticancer drugs. Research data indicated that
the extract killed all of the cancer cells in laboratory dishes.
Further investigations to isolate
the active component of the extract found it to be a unique and
previously unknown compound belonging to a class called sesquiterpenoids,
which are typically found in natural products. Rafi indicated that
an increasing number of compounds in this class have been identified
as having cytotoxic properties against cancer cell lines, but none
has reached the marketing stage.
The myrrh compound appears to kill cancer
cells by inactivating a specific protein, called Bcl-2, which is
overproduced by cancer cells, particularly in the breast and prostate,
the researcher says. Overproduction of this protein is believed
to promote the growth of cancer cells and make cells more resistant
to chemotherapy. As cancer is influenced by many mechanisms, the
investigators are now in the process of trying to determine whether
the compound also has other mechanisms of inhibitory action against
On the basis of initial laboratory tests,
the compound does not appear to be as strong as conventional chemotherapy
drugs, such as paclitaxel (Taxol), vinbalstine and vincristine,
which are known to be potent cancer killers. These drugs are highly
toxic to healthy cells, however, says Rafi.
The researcher estimates that the compound
tested is 100 times less potent than paclitaxel. The compound appears
to fall within the moderate strength range of other recently discovered
plant-based phytochemicals, including resveratrol (from grapes),
genestein (from soy) lycopene (from tomatoes), and catechins (from
All these compounds are derived from food
and are thus unlikely to be toxic to healthy cells, which could
mean fewer side effects as a chemotherapy agent, Rafi says.
Once the compound is better understood,
it's possible that its potency could eventually be increased,
the researcher says, who envisions that it could be developed
as an oral drug. Rafi predicts that there may be other compounds
in myrrh that are more potent than the current anticancer candidate.
Food Science Department, Rutgers University
Zhu N, Kikuzaki H, Sheng S, et al.: Furanosesquiterpenoids
of Commiphona myrrha. J Nat Prod 2001, 64:14601462.
Mother Nature's Medicine Chest, Scientific
American, April 2001.