A History of Herbal Cancer Therapies

In the quest for cancer therapies, we look to herbal treatments.

| May/June 1997

Cancer has become a powerful and foreboding enemy, requiring great strategy, bravery, and open-mindedness to hope to beat it. Years of searching for a cure have proven fruitless, although the efforts haven’t gone unrewarded. Surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy have given us ways to stall the disease and, in some cases, force it into remission. Meanwhile, news of preventive measures and miracle cures provide us with both hope and confusion.

Herbal treatments are a part of this. In the coming months, Herbs for Health will occasionally explore herbal treatments in a series of articles about cancer—what research is being done, what research is showing. We also will attempt to set the record straight about the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of herbal remedies.We begin this series with an overview of plant-derived drugs currently used in the United States in chemotherapy.

In both conventional and alternative approaches to treating cancer, plants have played an important role. For more than thirty-five years, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has been researching potential anticancer agents from plants. From 1960 to 1980, its researchers screened about 35,000 species of higher (flowering) plants for activity against cancer. About 3,000 of those demonstrated reproducible activity, and a small fraction of these were eventually chosen for clinical trials.


Long recognized as a medicinal plant, mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) grows in damp woods from Quebec to Florida and west to Texas and Minnesota. In the last century, mayapple was widely used as a cleanser and to induce vomiting and expel parasites. Be forewarned that the root is highly toxic and may cause vomiting, diarrhea, headache, bloating, stupor, and/or lowered blood pressure.

While researching podophyllin resin obtained from mayapple rhizomes, Jonathan Hartwell, formerly head of NCI’s natural products branch, discovered clues that suggested may­apple as a possible anticancer agent. He found historical references to the use of mayapple against cancer in many cultures. For example, the Penobscot Indians of Maine used it. An 1849 American materia medica (a treatise on the sources, nature, properties, and preparation of drugs) recommended the resin as a treatment for cancerous tumors, polyps, and “unhealthy granulations”. Physicians in Mississippi used it as early as 1897, and in Louisiana it was a folk remedy for venereal warts.

Hartwell’s exhaustive survey of the historical and folk literature turned up anecdotal evidence of anticancer activity from more than 3,000 plant species. As a result of his efforts, mayapple is now used in conventional cancer treatment. Derivatives of podophyllotoxin, a compound found in the herb’s resin, are analogues for the production of two semisynthetic drugs, etoposide and teniposide, which are used in the treatment of testicular cancer and small-cell lung cancer.

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