Mistletoe as a cancer treatment - review

Mistletoe as a cancer treatment - review

Mistletoe is one of the most prescribed complementary and/or alternative cancer treatments; extracted from a parasitic plant, it can reduce side-effects and toxicity during chemotherapy and radiotherapy, boost immune response, reduce pain, and increase survival times when used with orthodox medicine. Clinical trials are underway to review its cancer-killing benefits.

Mistletoe can be used by IV infusion, sub-cutaneous injection or taken as pills. It has no known contra-indication with drugs. Research suggests it can increase cancer survival by up to 50 per cent. The National Cancer Institute in the USA state that mistletoe kills cancer cells in vitro, and boosts the immune system in vitro and in vivo (1). The NCI states that Mistletoe has three active ingredients - polysaccharides, viscotoxins and lectins.

It is often thought of as a natural alternative to chemotherapy, but it is a widely used complementary therapy particularly in Germany. Extracts such as Iscador, Isorel and Plenosol are sold under a number of brand names and 2011 research on CANCERactive suggested mistletoe could help protect the liver and reduce toxicity from chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Mistletoe improves survival times, lowers side-effects

Research in 2009 by the German Institute of Immunology and Experimental Oncology showed that mistletoe extract injections can improve cancer survival times. This research examined its use alongside both chemotherapy, and radiotherapy.

The researchers concluded that it improved the success of chemotherapy, and also helped clear away the toxic debris caused by the chemotherapy.

The scientists also showed that bowel cancer patients having mistletoe injections, had fewer side effects from both chemotherapy and radiotherapy (falling from 48 per cent to 19 per cent) and survived longer - being a third more likely to survive 5 years - than those who did not!

This is hardly an insignificant finding.

In a 2012 meta-analysis of 4 studies (2) between 1985 and 2002 in Germany, with a total of 3,324 patients, Mistletoe was shown to provide a significant survival time benefit. Although there was sometimes a clash with the orthodox drug, on its own mistletoe produced no significant side-effects. In the 4 studies that qualified, one was for breast cancer, another non-metastatic colorectal cancer, a third was malignant melanoma and the fourth was for pancreatic cancer.

The National Cancer Institute in America states that many animal and laboratory studies have been done with mistletoe. Human studies tend to be in German as most of the studies have been done in Germany. The NCI talk about IscadorQ having a strong anti-cancer effect with certain cancers but not others. The NCI also talk of Clinical Trials using Mistletoe as an adjuvant therapy, reducing side-effects of chemo and radiotherapy. They refer to the colon cancer study above and also to a Phase I Clinical Trial for the US National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine using Helixor A with gemcitabine and showing results of lowered toxicity and improved anti-cancer benefits in half the patients. 

One problem in Germany is that the clinics using mistletoe therapy do not want to conduct placebo controlled clinical trials as they feel they are letting down their patients by giving them a placebo instead of the real thing.

However, as research grows, so does the positive commentary on mistlotoe and cancer.

Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center started a Clinical Trial in 2015 recruiting one patient with advanced cancer and a solid tumour every 6 weeks. This followed a patient with metastatic colorectal cancer and spread to the liver, refusing orthodox chemotherapy and having mistletoe therapy instead. Luis Diaz, an associate professor and oncologist said that he was amazed by the physical improvement of the patient, their energy and their color. Since surgery on her liver, the patient has completely improved and the cancer is stable.

The patient, Ivelisse Page, Formed a charity ’Believe Big’ to bring mistletoe therapy to proper clinical trials in the USA. 

What is Mistletoe; and the various mistletoe treatments?

Mistletoe is a semi-parasitic plant that has been used for centuries in Europe to treat many human illnesses. Although the berries and the plant itself are poisonous, a whole variety of extracts has been prepared and these seem to avoid the toxicity and side effects.

The extracts are manufactured and marketed as injectable prescription drugs under a variety of names including Iscador, Isorel, Isucucin, Helixor, Plenosol and Eurixor. Some extracts are, in fact marketed under more than one name. Iscador, Isorel and Plenosol are sold as Iscar, Vysorel and Lektinol respectively. 

Importantly, the chemical composition of the extract depends greatly on the host tree, and extract variants are prepared by tree type.

The extracts can be in aqueous solution or in solutions of water and alcohol. They may also be fermented.

What is very clear is that results depend on the type of cancer, the dose of mistletoe used, the way it is used (e.g. subcutaneously) and the type of mistletoe product involved. Other factors such as chemotherapy drug used in parallel may influence results.

Why the interest in Mistletoe?

Two components of mistletoe, lectins and viscotoxins, provide the probable anti-cancer cytoxic ingredients for the extracts, which have been shown to kill cancer cells in vitro, and in animal studies. They, plus oligo- and polysaccharides, also boost the immune system, with studies showing this both in vitro and in vivo.

Open quotesSome extracts are, in fact marketed under more than one nameClose quotes

Viscotoxins are small proteins that appear to kill certain cells by combining with their nucleic acids whilst also stimulating the immune system. Lectins are larger and more complex molecules made of carbohydrate and protein (galactosides). They appear to be able to bind to the surface of immune cells and stimulate activity, in common with all glycoproteins. Glycoproteins improve intercellular recognition systems, activating natural killer cells/T cells and other white cells to produce interleukin 1 and 6, and also tumour killing factors. One study reviewed lectins ability to release superoxide from certain white cells.

The National Cancer Institute has a review of in vitro and in vivo studies on Mistletoe here.

Mistletoe extracts also include triterpene acids which are known to be anti-inflammatory, capable of regulating blood glucose levels and have anti-viral and cytoxic properties.

Does Mistletoe treatment 'work'?

Mistletoe therapy is used by integrative doctors to improve quality of life, stabilise disease, induce fever, enhance orthodox therapies, and boost immune response.  

There have been over 60 European Clinical Trials on mistletoe. At the outset, almost all involved a little bit of controversy because of few clinics wanting to do placebo trials. By 1994, a review of the trials found that there was insufficient evidence to recommend the use of mistletoe extracts in the treatment of cancer.

However, a 2004 study (Maticek; Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine May/June 2004) involving both randomised and non-randomised samples and 10,266 cancer patients changed all that.

A continuous recruitment of patients between 1973 and 1988 in Germany for the study based at the Institute for Preventative Medicine, United Nations, Heidelberg matched people treated with Iscador and those without with strict control of age, sex, tumour type, year of diagnosis, chemotherapy etc. A further follow up in 1998 reviewed survival times.

Open quotesThose who continued on a long term basis saw a doubling of survival timeClose quotes

Both test groups showed an increased survival time of 39 per cent for those taking Iscador. Those who continued to use Iscador on a long term basis saw a doubling of survival time. By contrast, short usage times seem to provide little effect, possibly since stimulation of the immune system requires time.

Different German studies have claimed that mistletoe has a number of properties - reducing side-effects of chemo and radiotherapy, boosting the immune system, killing cancer cells, inhibiting angiogenesis, and increasing survival times. 

Mistletoe Treatment in the UK - making chemo more tolerable

While Clinical trials have started in the USA. Mistletoe in the UK is commonly used to help alongside chemotherapy to reduce fatigue and improving tolerability.  People appear to live better on chemotherapy when having mistletoe. There is also evidence that mistletoe can stabilise cancer. There is some evidence that mistletoe can kill cancer cells and areas of tumours. Clinics such as The Camphill Wellbeing Trust in Aberdeen (which tends to provide IV courses) and the Integrative Centre in London (which provides pills for in home use)  caprovide more information and expertise.

Iscador is given as subcutaneous injection 2-3 times per week. Side effects are relatively mild and include a slight irritation or reddening around the injection site. There may be a rise in patient temperature.

The use of Iscador with a variety of cancers has been studied; from breast to brain tumours; from pancreatic to bladder cancer, and we recommend interested parties to review the extensive research on mistletoe. Until recently, the treatment could be prescribed (as homeopathy) on the NHS; it is now available sometimes on the NHS, sometimes through charity; sometimes privately.

You can find a centre through http://www.mistletoetherapy.org.uk/centres/

The Camphill Wellbeing Trust - https://www.camphillwellbeing.org.uk 

The Integrative Centre. London - https://integratedmedicine.co


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The CANCERactive view

Mixed, frankly. We have seen a good number of people use it. Most said it did hold the cancer in check for a while; some said it did help with side-effects chemotherapy.

Does it cure cancer? Well despite the lady in America curing her cancer and persuading Johns Hopkins Medical School to conduct a Clinical trial. not in our experience, sorry. It can also be quite expensive. 

We did have two reports of women trying to cure their cancers without using any orthodox medicine at all. Both used Mistletoe. In the end they had lumpectomies. Interestingly, they reported that, on examining the removed tumours, about 50% of the cells were dead.

We don’t think it is a cure for cancer, however it may boost the immune system, slow down progression, and help reduce the side-effects of chemo and radiotherapy.



2. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830712001309

Please be clear: At CANCERactive we do not consider the above compound to be a cure for cancer, despite what the research says or experts doing the research may claim. The above, is an article on the compound from published research and expert opinion in the public domain. At CANCERactive we do not believe that any single compound (drug, vitamin, whatever) is a cure for cancer. We believe that people can significantly increase their personal odds of survival by building an Integrated Programme of treatments. Equally, cancer prevention is best practiced through a width of measures.

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