Okay, so kissing under the mistletoe might have a solid basis in folklore. But scientific research finds mistletoe can extend the life and quality of life for a cancer patient.
In fact, the anticancer properties of this medicinal plant are so evident that it may finally be time for mistletoe to be considered a part of primary cancer treatment.
This is on top of centuries of traditional use of mistletoe (Viscum album) for a variety of medicinal benefits.
Pancreatic cancer patients live longer with mistletoe
Research from Serbia’s Institute of Oncology and Radiology at the National Cancer Research Center has determined that mistletoe extract will lengthen life for patients with severe pancreatic cancer. And a study a year earlier by some of the same researchers showed that mistletoe extract increased quality of life scores among breast cancer patients.
This recent study was published in the European Journal of Cancer. The researchers tested 220 patients with advanced stage pancreatic cancer—a progressive metastatic cancer that has a relatively short survival time – sometimes within months.
The researchers divided the patients into two groups and gave one group injections with up to 10 milligrams of Viscum album (European mistletoe) extract three times a week for up to twelve months. Both groups also received supportive care through the study period.
Those taking the mistletoe extract had average survival periods nearly twice those given the supportive care only—at 4.8 months versus 2.7 months among the control group.
Those cancer patients with a better overall prognosis had even better results from the mistletoe injections, with more than double the remaining survival times, at 6.6 months versus 3.2 months.
The study found no adverse side effects and the therapy was described by the researchers as “non-toxic.” This significantly contrasts with many cancer treatments, which are often highly toxic.
Breast cancer patients have improved quality of life
A year earlier the same researchers at the same institution conducted another study on mistletoe extract with 95 breast cancer patients.
The patients were divided into three groups. All three groups were treated with chemotherapy. One group of 34 patients was also treated with a fresh mistletoe extract (water extract), through injections that started at 3 milligrams and increased to 50 milligrams. The patients were trained to inject themselves with the herbal medication.
The third group underwent additional treatment with another mistletoe formulation called Iscador M. This was not included with the study findings. More on Iscador M below.
The researchers found that the breast cancer patients taking the mistletoe extract in addition to the chemotherapy had significantly higher quality of life scores compared to the control group.
Lectins active compounds in mistletoe
Research has thus far indicated that the lectins within mistletoe are likely the primary active compounds. Scientists have found four different lectins within mistletoe – ML-1, ML-2, ML-3 and ML-4. These have been tested among several types of cancer cells and have been found to stimulate the immune system variously.
One study, for example, found that when ML-1 is reduced from the mixture of constituents, mistletoe’s ability to boost immunity was depressed. This of course means that ML-1 boosts the immune system.
Iscador M tested extensively
The mistletoe plant medicine that has undergone the most extensive testing is called Iscador M. This is a mistletoe extract that has undergone fermentation with Lactobacillus plantarum – a probiotic used to make Kimchi, Sauerkraut and other fermented foods.
This product has been tested in the lab, among animals and humans over the past two decades, with some good effects. Life extension in certain cancer cases has been found. Iscador also has been found to boost the immune system significantly as well, resulting decreases in pain and increased well being.
In some animal studies, tumor size has been decreased by Iscador. Early studies from Germany tested Iscador in human lung and breast cancer cases. These found reduction in tumor sizes and extended survival times among Iscador treated patients.
For example, in one study of 25 patients with ovary cancers, and compared to 22 patients receiving chemotherapy. The study found that Iscador group had an average survival period of over 16 months, while the the conventional group had a 5.2 month survival period.
Among those patients in stage 3 ovary cancer, the Iscador group had more than four times the survival times than the conventional group.
Mistletoe as a primary cancer treatment?
Outside of the animal studies, practically every study going back fifty years on mistletoe has tested it alongside chemotherapy as an adjuvant therapy. Is it time for Iscador to be considered a primary treatment for cancer?
With this long of a history of extending life and reducing tumors, there must be enough evidence to draw conclusions.
The concern that comes up for most cancer researchers is the fact that it would be irresponsible to test cancer patients with a new alternative cancer treatment alone. This barrier has in fact presented the single largest issue preventing researchers from confirming many alternative treatments for cancer.
However, mistletoe extracts have shown success in study after study – but not consistently across different cancer types. The problem is that mistletoe is not a pharmaceutical and thus doesn’t come with the billion-dollar budget from pharmaceutical companies.
A cursory review of the research finds that mistletoe extracts have shown anticancer effects against Lewis lung cancer, colon adenocarcinoma, lung and bronchial cancers, breast cancer, ovary cancer, pancreatic cancer and melanoma, with varying degrees of efficacy. Multiple mistletoe studies have found it significantly boosts natural killer cell function – which are important anticancer elements of our immune system.
While mistletoe is being used on an ongoing basis in many cancer treatments today, the bottom line is that most cancer patients will probably need to urge their doctor or cancer specialist in order to have it included in their cancer treatment.
Tröger W, Galun D, Reif M, Schumann A, Stanković N, Milićević M. Viscum album [L.] extract therapy in patients with locally advanced or metastatic pancreatic cancer: a randomised clinical trial on overall survival. Eur J Cancer. 2013 Dec;49(18):3788-97. doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2013.06.043.
Tröger W, Zdrale Z, Tišma N, Matijašević M. Additional Therapy with a Mistletoe Product during Adjuvant Chemotherapy of Breast Cancer Patients Improves Quality of Life: An Open Randomized Clinical Pilot Trial. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014;2014:430518. doi: 10.1155/2014/430518.
Braedel-Ruoff S. Immunomodulatory effects of Viscum album extracts on natural killer cells: review of clinical trials. Forsch Komplementmed. 2010 Apr;17(2):63-73. doi: 10.1159/000288702.
Khwaja TA, Dias CB, Pentecost S. Recent studies on the anticancer activities of mistletoe (Viscum album) and its alkaloids. Oncology. 1986;43 Suppl 1:42-50.
Hassauer W, Gutsch J, Burkhardt R. What prospects of success does Iscador therapy offer in advanced ovarian cancer?. Onkologie. 1979 Feb;2(1):28-36.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.