Mistletoe cancer treatment

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The mistletoe in question is not the same as the mistletoe in the United States. This plant is the European mistletoe (Viscum album L.) known to grow on a number of tree species found in Europe, England and parts of Asia. Although it produces berries, the alleged medicinal value is found in the leaves and the twigs of the plant.

The medicinal use of mistletoe is at least a couple thousand years old, but modern interest in the plant began in the 1920s, at a time when there was no regulations and everybody who wanted into the therapeutic game could mix a concoction and call it a cure.

Proponents of mistletoe cancer treatment claim that European mistletoe provides several benefits, including:

  • Immune system stimulation
  • Anti-tumor activity
  • Anti-angiogenetic effects (this means that mistletoe prevents blood vessels from forming within tumors, a process known as angiogenesis).
  • Improved overall survival
  • Higher quality of life
  • Mitigated treatment-related side effects

In a handful of European countries, mistletoe extracts are prescribed to cancer patients more than any other substance. Surely there must be something to this extract, right?

The evidence

What evidence supports the efficacy of mistletoe extract for cancer patients? What is the activity of the substance, meaning how does it do whatever it does as a cancer treatment?

In 2008 these questions and more were addressed by the most prestigious health care collaborators in the world, the Cochrane Review. After a broad review of all the available clinical evidence, they concluded:

"There [is] not enough evidence to reach clear conclusions about the effects … and it is therefore not clear to what extent the application of mistletoe extracts translates into improved symptom control, enhanced tumour response or prolonged survival."

The Cochrane Review found major mistletoe studies to be seriously flawed and not reliable, but such a finding has not hampered the extract's popularity among doctors and patients alike in England, Holland and Switzerland, to name a few, where it is commonly prescribed as an injection under the trade names Helixor and Iscador.

The US FDA remains unconvinced, and the extract is not approved for sale in the US.

Sources

Horneber M, Bueschel G, Huber R, Linde K, Rostock M. Mistletoe therapy in oncology. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD003297. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003297.pub2

National Cancer Institute, Mistletoe Extracts

American Cancer Society, Mistletoe

 

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