While treatments like chemotherapy and radiation therapy are often used in treating breast cancer, they have severe side effects and affect healthy cells.
Dr Hildah Mfengwana, a New Generation of Academics Programme (nGAP) lecturer in Biomedical Technology in the Department of Health Sciences at the Central University of Technology, looked at natural and medicinal plants as possible cancer treatment options that have few side effects.
“Cancer is still a big problem. We need to find alternative and natural treatment options with less side effects. I knew medicinal plants work, because I grew up using them. People have been using them to treat various diseases, so I thought they are worth looking at,” said Mfengwana.
Her PhD research was aimed at studying the efficacy of the plant Asparagus laricinus to treat breast and prostate cancer, as well as determining the safety of the plant.
Even though traditional healers use the roots of the plant to treat patients with prostate cancer, Mfengwana found that the leaves contained more compounds and were more efficient at killing cancer cells than the stem and roots.
Mfengwana observed that water extraction, used by traditional healers, yielded more active compounds than other extraction methods.
“The benefits of using the leaves is that you can pick the leaves and leave the plant to grow. This is good for conserving the plant and the natural environment,” she said.
While the extracts were able to kill both breast and prostate cancer cells, the highest efficacy was observed with breast cancer cells. The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) reports that 1 in 100 people diagnosed with breast cancer in South Africa is male.
The extracts triggered cell death which is normally suppressed in cancer cells. These natural extracts showed minimal damage to healthy cells, which will provide a welcomed relief to cancer sufferers who often grapple with adverse side effects associated with chemo- and radiation therapy.
“The most exciting aspect is that the compounds showed high selectivity towards breast cancer cells, killing more of the cancer cells with little damage to healthy cells,” said Mfengwana.
Mfengwana pointed out that the efficacy and safety of the extracts still need to be tested in living organisms to determine the safe and effective dose for traditional healers to recommend to their patients.