Boswellia, boswellic acid, Frankincense and cancer

Boswellia, boswellic acid, Frankincense and cancer

The herb boswellia, or Indian Frankincense, is a resin which comes from the Boswellia serrata tree in India. Frankincense, or olibanum, is an oil from the resin. Both Boswellia and Frankincense have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer benefits.

There are other trees from the same species or genus in Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan and China - for example, Boswellia carterii, Boswellia frereana and Boswellia sacra.

There are a number of ‘boswellic acids’ comprising 30 per cent of the Boswellia resin, these 'terpenes' being the active ingredients of the resin; for example, 3-O-acetyl-11-keto-β boswellic acid, α- and β-boswellic acids and 11-keto-β-boswellic acid. However, they are not represented in all Frankincense oil, because of their size and the distillation process; the Frankincense essential oil is composed mainly of the much lighter monoterpene and sesquiterpene molecules with small amounts of diterpenoid components. However, although the specific components may differ slightly, there are similar anti-inflammatory  and anti-cancer benefits in both Boswellia and Frankincense.

There is also a difference between the resin of the different trees (1). For example, Indian Olibanum oil obtained from Boswellia serrata contains 40 components and has a high content of the monoterpene α-thujene, the other Frankoncense oils do not contain this; α-thujene is also found in eucalyptus oil and, by interfering with the inhibitory transmitter GABA, it has mood-stimulsating effects even at low doses. Small amounts are found in the drink Absinthe (2). Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA) is thought to be the most powerful of the boswellic acids have the ability to stimulate the immune system and prevent DNA damage.

Boswellia, Frankincense oil and arthritis, colitis, psoriasis and asthma 

Boswellia tends to be used orally, while Frankincense oil tends to be used topically. They have a number of benefits, in particular being strongly anti-inflammatory. They have been used in cases of arthritis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis (3), IBS and colitis (4), asthma and psoriasis (5) with some success.  Professor Thomas Simmet, who was involved in the psoriasis work, proposed that the Frankincense interfered with an enzyme which was involved in leukotriene production which is a cause of inflammation, particularly in asthma.

A 2022 review by a team from Gutenberg Medical School, Germany, on the anti-inflammatory benefits of Frankincense concludes that it acts via multiple mechanisms, e.g. by the inhibition of this leukotriene synthesis, and by calming oxidative stress, and by regulation of both the innate and adaptive immune systems (6). 

Boswellia, Frankincense and cancer

The same review (6) also concluded that research studies showed frankincense modulated signaling transduction responsible for cell cycle arrest and inhibition of proliferation, angiogenesis, invasion and metastasis in cancer. Some examples we have collected include: 

     i) Breast cancer - there is research showing that Frankincense brings about cancer cell death, and prevents tumour growth in vitro. And Sloan Kettering refers to a Boswellia cream that is helpful in preventing and relieving damage from radiotherapy..

A 2022 study on cancer stem cells in Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) concludes that Frankincense definitely has anti-cancer benefits against these cells (7).

    ii) Pancreatic cancer - A 2012 study from a team at MD Anderson in Texas, suggested that a Boswellic acid could restrict metastasis (8).

   iii) Bladder cancer - A study from a Team at Oklahoma Medicine showed that Frankincense oil had a general cancer cell cytotoxicity and specifically with Bladder cancer (9)

   iv) Colorectal cancer - The boswellic acid,  acetyl-keto-β-boswellic acid (AKBA), has been shown to prevent DNA damage (and particularly methylation) in Colorectal cancer cells (11). This is a significant finding. These results from Baylor University Medical Institute in Texas These results suggest that boswellic acid might be a promising epigenetic modulator in the chemoprevention and treatment of cancers and DNA damage generally.

   v) Brain cancer - The anti-inflammatory factor seems to help significantly and there are research studies involving a German neurosurgeon, Michael Winking,  suggesting that Frankincense may reduce brain cancer spread in vitro, and in vivo in rats. There is another study suggesting it did not stop spread in humans.

One report covered on this website in Cancer Watch, August 2010, showed Frankincense separated the cancer cell nucleus from the cytoplasm and brought about cell death. It had no effect on healthy cells.

Boswellia has been shown by members of the Radiology Dept in Freiberg hospital, in a randomised, placebo controlled, double blind trial, to reduce radiotherapy oedema damage (10)


Frankincense and/or Boswellia may react with other anti-inflammatory compounds such as Ibuprofen. They may increase blood flow in the uterus and thus menstruation, and pregnant women are advised to avoid them.




  1. A fresh look at the constituents of Indian olibanum oil; J Verghese et al, Wiley Online Library; Sept 1987
  2. Absinthe and γ-aminobutyric acid receptors; Olsen, Richard W. (2000-04-25).. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 97 (9): 4417–4418. Bibcode:2000PNAS...97.4417O. doi:10.1073/pnas.97.9.4417. 
  3. The Arthritis foundation
  4. Natural compounds to treat Colitis and Ulcerative Colitis: From science
  5. Frankincense-derived triterpenoid improves psoriasis
  6. 6. Anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer activities of frankincense: Targets, treatments and toxicities; Thomas Efferth,, Franz Oesch; Semin Cancer Biol; 2022 May;80:39-57.  
  7. Evaluation of anticancer effects of frankincense on breast cancer stem-like cells; Mohammad Kamalabadi Farahani et al; Cancer Reports, 8 August 2022
  8. Acetyl-11-keto-β-boswellic acid suppresses invasion of pancreatic cancer cells through the downregulation of CXCR4 chemokine receptor expression; Byoungduck Park et al; Int J Cancer; 2011 Jul 1;129(1):23-33.  
  9. Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicityMark Barton Frank et al; March 2009; BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies
  10. Boswellia serrata acts on cerebral edema in patients irradiated for brain tumors: a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind pilot trial; Simon Kirste et al; Cancer; 2011 Aug 15;117(16):3788-95.
  11. Boswellic acid induces epigenetic alterations by modulating DNA methylation in colorectal cancer cells; Yan Shen et al;  Cancer Biol Ther 2012 May; 13(7):542-52 . 2012 May;13(7):542-52.



  Approved by the Medical Board.  Click Here



2023 Research
CancerAcitve Logo
Subscribe (Free e-Newsletter)

Join Chris'

Join Chris' NewsletterSignup today for free and be the first to get notified on new updates.