The magnolia is a flowering tree whose aromatic flowers come in a variety of colors and sizes. One variety is commonly known as “champa” in the parts of northern India where it is common, another is champak or champaka in South India. The plant is believed to have existed 20 million years ago, before the evolution of bees. What makes the magnolia plant remarkable beyond its fragrant flowers is the discovery that the trees may contain a compound that can cure cancer of the head and neck.
The benefit of the magnolia plant is not new in Asian medicine. The Chinese and Japanese have used magnolia extract to treat ailments for hundreds of years. Earlier, researchers in the US had found that a substance in the bark, honokiol, was helpful in protecting muscles from inflammation after intense exercise.
In the latest study, funded by the US Department of Veteran Affairs and carried out by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers found that honokiol was effective in shrinking isolated cancer cells and tumors implanted in mice. The particular type of cancer targeted in the study is called squamous cell cancer which affects the head and neck. It occurs most frequently among tobacco and alcohol users. Those who develop this particular cancer usually have just a 50% survival rate.
The scientists say that the compound from the magnolia plant blocks a protein called epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, which has a high presence in head and neck cancers. Encouragingly, honokiol is more effective on EGFR than the drug that is usually used to treat head and neck cancers – gefitinib (sold as Iressa).
In the study paper, senior author Santosh K. Katiyar and his colleagues wrote, “Conclusively, honokiol appears to be an attractive bioactive small molecule phytochemical for the management of head and neck cancer which can be used either alone or in combination with other available therapeutic drugs.”
A lot remains to be done before honokiol reaches a therapy stage, including further testing, clinical trials and determination of dosage and how it would be applied.
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