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Research Specialist Ingrid Bonilla

Gift of the Magi may be treatment for cancer

Cancer surgeon and researcher Nancy DeMore, M.D., is leading a clinical trial using frankincense to try to treat breast and colon cancer at the Medical University of South Carolina.

The study was inspired by a research specialist in DeMore’s lab. Ingrid Bonilla had researched frankincense as a treatment on breast cancer cells as an undergraduate student at Charleston Southern University.

DeMore, who has done extensive research on new treatments for breast cancer, says boswellic acid, the extract from Indian frankincense, may help patients by reducing inflammation. The chemical structure of boswellic acid is similar to other anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen. DeMore and Bonilla wrote the current clinical trial with data from clinical trials of the extract in Europe.

DeMore says their study is a “window of opportunity” trial that takes advantage of the window of time between the initial diagnosis of breast or colon cancer and surgery to remove the cancer.

“The tumor from the biopsy that was taken to make the diagnosis of cancer before treatment will be compared to the tumor taken at surgery after treatment,” DeMore says. “This will allow us to assess whether taking boswellia changes the biology of the tumor.”

Frankincense would not be the only plant-based treatment for illness. For example, digoxin, from the foxglove plant, is used to treat cardiac arrhythmias. DeMore says “a lot of herbs and alternative therapies haven’t been studied scientifically, so it’s really important to know, in a well-designed clinical trial, if these natural products work.”

DeMore started her research into natural products with curcumin in the 1990s. Extracted from turmeric, curcumin inhibits blood vessel growth in tumors. She then set out to test medicinal uses of other natural products. The MUSC Hollings Cancer Center is funding the trial for 40 breast cancer and 20 colon cancer patients over the next one to two years. “I would just encourage patients to really be open to clinical trials," she says. "They’re the only way to make new discoveries and to move the field forward."

While the preclinical evidence for boswellic acid seems promising, it’s important not to replace standard treatment with natural therapies that haven’t been studied well. Therapies that aren’t based on clinical trial results could have unexpected side effects, or even harmful effects. Also, people should be aware that over-the-counter frankincense may not contain the dosage or quality of the extract being tested in this study.