Monday, September 3, 2012

A Pakistani Herbal Tea for Breast Cancer

The blogs are abuzz today with reports about newly discovered potencies of a Pakistani herbal tea that is often consumed by women who have breast cancer. The news stories leave out a very important fact about the tea.

The herb in question is Fagonia cretica. It is an herb that seems to have originated on the island of Crete and found its way across the Middle East and South Asia. It's now more of an Unani or Ayurevdic herb than a European herb, and it's popular for making teas in Pakistan and India, where it is known as dhamasa (in Hindi) or dhamaya (in Urdu). The plant is also known as Rose of the Virgin in English, and Rosa de la virgen in Spanish.

The traditional use of the herb was to stimulate urination. It's "cooling," and a bit on the bitter side. The recent reports are not the first studies of the herb. It's also been found in other test-tube studies to break up blood clots.

The current reporting concerns the herb's ability to stimulate a "watchdog" gene known as p53. This gene activates apoptosis, or cell suicide, in many (but not all) strains of breast cancer cells. A failure of the gene is the reason some women succumb to breast cancer.

The reports leave out the fact that researchers at Aston University in the UK who have been studying the herb also noted:

1. It activates a second anti-cancer gene, p21, and
2. The effects of the herb are neutralized by the application of caffeine, at least in the test tube.

So if you are a woman who has breast cancer and you are trying everything you possibly can, don't forget that caffeinated beverages are a no-no while using this herb. And beware that the use of herb in treating cancer in living women, as contrasted to the use of the herb for killing cancer cells in the lab, is not yet worked out. There are good reasons to believe the herb won't hurt you, but there is not yet good evidence that it is in any way a stand-alone treatment for cancer or any other condition. Don't stop doctor-ordered treatment to take this tea. And always keep your doctor in the loop when you try any natural treatment--if only so your doctor can learn about new treatments that work.

Photo credit: H. Zell, via Wikimedia Commons.

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