Breast Cancer and Medicinal Herb

The results of a just-published study* indicate that there may be a new, organic weapon in the battle against breast cancer.

A group of researchers from Wayne State University’s Karmanos Cancer Institute examined Ocimum gratissimum (OG) – a medicinal herb also called holy basil and tulsi – and its effect on breast cancer cells. What they discovered is encouraging.
Scientific validation for a popular herb

A member of the mint family, tulsi has been widely consumed for centuries throughout Europe and Asia – typically as a tea – says primary investigator Pratima Nangia-Makker, PhD.

Reputed to possess health-promoting properties, “tulsi has been shown to have many uses, and there have been a lot of studies conducted on it,” she says. “Some studies using rats and mice have demonstrated tulsi’s antioxidant properties and the protection it offers from environmental carcinogens.”

What had not been previously studied was the herb’s effect on breast cancer, which is where Nangia-Makker’s team came in.

Their analysis was part of a larger effort in which “researchers have begun trying to scientifically authenticate the alleged health benefits of natural products like tulsi,” she says. “Because I work with breast cancer, I was interested in whether the plant would demonstrate breast cancer preventive and therapeutic properties.”

The team introduced Ocimum leaf extract to three lines of human breast cancer cells and two normal cell lines in laboratory cultures (in vitro) and in mice (in vivo) that had been injected with the cancer cells.

Results deserving of a closer look

The upshot is that the tulsi extract inhibited breast cancer cell proliferation, growth, and migration (the tendency to move toward one another to form colonies or toward other kinds of cells during invasion) in the cultured cells, as well as in the mice.

Interestingly, the extract “didn’t inhibit migration in the normal cells as it did in the tumor cells,” Nangia-Makker says, “And the tumors in the animals were smaller and didn’t contain as many blood vessels” – necessary not only to “feed” tumors and enable them to grow, but also to provide a “gateway” for the escape of tumor cells to secondary sites.

More importantly, the blood vessels in the tulsi extract-exposed tumors were not mature and functional – causing the exposed tumors to be about 60% smaller than the tumors that had no exposure, she says.

The study also compared three of tulsi’s active ingredients – previously studied in isolation – to the leaf extract.

“Our whole-leaf extract was much more effective than the three active ingredients – whether they were used alone or in combination,” says Nangia-Makker. “This suggests that tulsi’s inhibitory effect on breast cancer cells comes either from an ingredient that hasn’t yet been identified, or from a combination of many ingredients found in the leaf extract.”

While these results show that tulsi extract could be valuable for preventing and treating breast cancer, much additional research is necessary, she says. In the meantime, speak with your doctor if you’re thinking about adding tulsi or any other natural compound to your diet.

“To my knowledge, tulsi has no toxic effects; you can just grow it in your garden and add it to your tea,” Nangia-Makker says, adding that the herb also has nutritional value because it is a good source of vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, zinc, sodium, manganese, and essential oils.”

Breast cancer patients and those at risk should stay tuned.

* Nangia-Makker P, et al. Inhibition of Breast Tumor Growth and Angiogenesis by a Medicinal Herb: Ocimum gratissimum. International Journal of Cancer, 2007 Aug 15;121(4):884-94.

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