magnolia and canecrMagnolol, a substance taken from the root and bark of the magnolia tree, is a potent killer of prostate cancer cells, according to a study in the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. Because it does not damage healthy cells, magnolol could be a promising new therapy for prostate cancer, as well as other types of cancers.

Next to skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. More than 27,000 men die from the disease each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Although treatments such as surgery and hormone therapy are available, many come with significant side effects. Researchers are on the hunt for new treatments that kill cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.

One of these potential new therapies is magnolol, a compound isolated from the root and bark of the magnolia tree. Magnolol has been used in China and Japan for thousands of years to treat a variety of conditions, ranging from inflammation to ulcers. Recent research suggests that it also slows the growth and triggers the death of cancer cells.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh wanted to learn how effectively magnolol kills cancer cells, and how exactly it triggers cancer cell death. When they treated several different types of human prostate cancer cells with magnolol for 24 hours, they found that the compound both decreased the number of cancer cells, and changed their shape in a way that suggested the cells were undergoing apoptosis (cell death). The treatment worked on many different types of prostate cancer cells, regardless of their invasiveness. The higher the dose of magnolol, the more significant the damage it caused to cancer cells. Meanwhile, magnolol treatment did not appear to harm healthy prostate cells.

The researchers then took their investigation a step further, looking at the pathways by which magnolol affected prostate cancer cells. “It is very important to understand how magnolol acts as an anticancer agent,” says lead author Yong Lee, PhD, Professor in the Department of Surgery and Pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh. “If we understand the mechanisms of killing (pathways, model of death, etc.), we can improve the efficacy of the drug and avoid side effects.”

Dr. Lee’s team discovered that magnolol alters the activity of various proteins that are involved in the apoptosis process, in order to promote cancer cell death. It also inhibits growth factor receptors that are typically produced in larger-than-normal amounts by cancer cells to help those cells survive.

Its ability to destroy cancer cells without harming healthy cells makes magnolol a promising treatment strategy. Although this study focused on prostate cancer, the treatment may also be useful for other types of cancers, Dr. Lee says.

However, it is still far too early to know whether this treatment will work in humans. The current study only indicates that magnolol is effective against prostate cancer cells in the laboratory. Animal studies, and then human trials will be needed to prove that it is both effective and safe for use on cancer patients, according to Dr. Lee.

Lee DH, Szczepanski MJ, Lee YJ. Magnolol induces apoptosis via inhibiting the EGFR/PI3K/Akt signaling pathway in human prostate cancer cells. Journal of Cellular Biochemistry. 2009;106:1113-1122.

American Cancer Society. “What are the Key Statistics About Prostate Cancer?”

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