Mistletoe Meds Fight Cancer, Studies Show
Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News
Dec. 24, 2008 -- Another reason to celebrate under the mistletoe this holiday season is that researchers have just determined a medicine made out of fermented mistletoe may prolong the lives of cancer patients.
The plant is Viscum album, the most common holiday mistletoe of Europe, and the species that first inspired the tradition of couples sharing a kiss under its evergreen leaves and waxy berries.
Americans, on the other hand, might kiss under Phoradendron serotinum, which resembles the European plant but was not the focus of the study.
The fermented mistletoe medicine is called Iscador.
"For the production of Iscador, mistletoe plants are harvested in the summer -- the stems and leaves -- and in the winter -- the stems, leaves and berries -- and then are fermented with lactobacillus," Renatus Ziegler, a research scientist at Institute Hiscia in Arlesheim, Switzerland, told Discovery News.
Various species of lactobacillus, a type of bacteria, are also used in the production of many foods and drinks such as yogurt, beer, wine and pickles.
Ziegler and co-author Ronald Grossarth-Maticek studied cervical and ovarian cancer patients to see how they might benefit in the long run if mistletoe extracts, such as Iscador, were added to their treatment regimes.
Over the course of a few decades, cancer patients who added mistletoe preparations to their standard therapies lived an average of half a year longer. The two related studies, conducted by different teams, found that other cancer patients, including individuals suffering from pancreatic cancer, experienced reduced drug reactions, could better withstand chemotherapy, and had prolonged remission periods with the added fermented mistletoe preparations.
Ziegler explained that, "mistletoe is an old medical drug in Europe, particularly in Germany, and goes back at least to Hippocrates."
"The exact mechanism of its (healing) actions are not known," she said, adding that prior studies, both on animals and in the lab, have indicated it curbs the growth of cancerous tumors.
Holiday celebrants, however, should never just munch on mistletoe, as-is. Reports are mixed concerning the possible toxicity of the American version of the plant. While Ziegler says, "Viscum album preparations are extremely well tolerated," patients should consult their doctors before taking any such treatment.
Gunver Kienle, a researcher at the Institute for Applied Epistemology and Medical Methodology in Freiburg, Germany, has also studied mistletoe extracts.
Kienle told Discovery News, "There is good evidence that (Viscum album) improves the quality of life of patients, and moderate evidence that it prolongs life and can induce tumor remission using high dosage and local application."
Mistletoe therapies "are the most frequently prescribed complementary and alternative medicine therapies in Central Europe," particularly in Germany and Austria, she said, but they are not yet as common elsewhere. That may soon change, said Kienle, in light of current research.
Thanks could go to a fellow named Rudolf, not the reindeer, but Rudolf Steiner, who first suspected in 1916 that mistletoe might fight cancer.