Can dandelions kill cancer?

TORONTO – Dandelion root tea, championed by an elderly leukemia patient, has sparked exciting cancer research at the University of Windsor.

Windsor Regional Hospital oncologist Dr. Caroline Hamm admitted there wasn’t much she could for her chronic myelomonocytic leukemia (CMML) patient after rounds of chemotherapy.

The “little old lady” replied she’d “take care of it herself” with some dandelion root tea, and spread the word to another patient in the waiting room.

To Dr. Hamm’s surprise, the patients’ conditions improved, and one patient is still in remission 3 years after a steady diet of dandelion tea.

These results inspired Dr. Hamm to contact Dr. Siyaram Pandey, professor of biochemistry at the University of Windsor.

“I was very pessimistic,” says Dr. Pandey. “Two people doesn’t mean anything scientifically, but… I was surprised to find that simple aqueous extract of this root had pretty good activity in inducing cell suicide in cancer cells.”

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Cell suicide, called apoptosis, is a process taking place in our body all the time. If cells are not needed or have damaged DNA, they effectively commit suicide.

“Cancer cells are the ones who evade this process… become resistant to cell death,” explains Dr. Pandey. His research looks to see if dandelion root extract can ‘remind’ the cancer cells to commit suicide, without killing off the healthy cells.

Dandelion root

However, Dr. Pandey’s research suggested the amount of extract obtained from boiling the tea was not sufficient, and so his team started increasing the efficiency of extraction with actual dandelion root obtained from farmers.

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“We have increased the potency of the extract,” he explains. “We are excited about it because it is a very simple natural extract, so it’s like you buying the vegetable and cooking it, basically, it is as simple as that, because we are not interfering with any chemicals.”

Preliminary research thus far involved collecting leukemia blood cells from the disposable tissue of nine patients (with their consent). It’s called an ex-vivo study, and took place in a culture dish with the dandelion extract of higher potency described by Dr. Pandey.

“All nine blood samples gave a good response that cancer cells committed suicide,” said Dr. Pandey. “In 48 hours, more than 70 per cent were committing suicide. If those cultures were kept for longer, all of them will die-this is our prediction.”

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Dr. Pandey donated his own cells as a “healthy” comparison, and showed there was no toxicity and very few cells dying from the healthy blood sample. He explains they have already studied dandelion extract in animals, and found no apparent toxicity and no tissue malfunction.

Human trials

These findings were so encouraging, they have now applied for clinical approval from Health Canada to begin trials in people, which may take between 6 months to a year. Dr. Pandey says the University of Windsor trial will aim to include 24 patients.

While dandelion extracts have been documented as treatments for leukemia and breast cancer in traditional Native American Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Dr. Pandey is investigating other potential areas the extract could work. So far dandelion root extract has been shown to be active against pancreatic cancer cells, colon cancer cells and melanoma (in cultures, not in patients).

In addition to the potential to kill multiple types of cancer cells, dandelion root extract may have an advantage over other chemotherapy treatments in terms of toxicity.

Taxol is one of the most commonly used drugs for chemotherapy with a $5-billion market at present, according to Dr. Pandey. It’s also a natural product coming from the bark of the yew tree, but unlike dandelion root extract, Taxol is very damaging to normal cells.

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“Compared to Taxol, this one is 100 times better in terms of toxicity,” says Dr. Pandey. “Taxol is terribly, terribly toxic to normal cells, it is not selective to cancer. That’s why people have very bad immunity, they lose their immunity, lose hair, and all that.”

Dr. Hamm is also excited to move ahead with a clinical trial pending approval from Health Canada, but doesn’t want to give false hope to cancer patients.

“Right now we have the one patient doing very well and that’s exciting for him..but not everybody’s getting prolonged responses. How can we make it work in more people? That’s the big question,” she says.

Dr. Hamm emphasizes the importance of clinical trials in determining effectiveness, and Dr. Pandey points to the generosity of local Windsor donors who have made their research possible.

The research project has been funded by the Windsor and Essex County Cancer Centre Foundation for Seeds for Hope grant, local charity Knights of Columbus and a heartfelt donation from a Windsor couple who have a personal tie to the research.

Dave and Donna Couvillon lost their son Kevin to cancer in 2010, and presented a $20,000 cheque to the University of Windsor this week in honour of what would have been Kevin’s 27th birthday. The Couvillons only read about Pandey’s research shortly before Kevin’s death, and feel their donation is a way to continue Kevin’s fight. The project and lab where the research takes place will soon be known as The Kevin Couvillon Research Project on the Anti-Cancer Effects of Dandelion Root Extract.

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The latest study showing dandelion’s cancer-treating potential was published Friday in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One journal. The study authors are Dr. Pandey, Dr. Hamm and graduate student Pamela Ovadje.

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