From Party Favor to Medical Goldmine: New Uses for Mistletoe
Mistletoe is familiar to anyone who’s ever read a Dickens novel. In late winter, especially in England and Europe, where it’s a native plant, mistletoe strategically hung in a doorway was considered an invitation to rendezvous with your beloved for a chaste kiss. It’s unclear what the plant’s green leaves and white waxy berries have to do with kissing, but it’s an old custom that persists, nevertheless.
The myth about mistletoe and kissing probably arose among ancient peoples living in the British Isles thousands of years ago. Because it is a semi-parasitic plant, which remains evergreen after it’s host tree has long since lost its leaves—and because it never touches the ground, yet mysteriously thrives, seemingly suspended in midair—mistletoe was considered something of a magical plant by certain ancient peoples.
There are numerous species, and some possess toxic berries, so it’s important to prevent pets or small children from sampling the sticky berries, should you come across, or decorate with, mistletoe. Even so, other species have been used medicinally for centuries. Which is probably why modern science has taken an interest in this curious plant. What they’ve discovered could provide good reason to celebrate: mistletoe is being investigated for its possible anti-cancer properties, among other things.
There has been interest in using the extracts of mistletoe for medical purposes for about a century. A recent clinical trial of pancreatic cancer patients appeared to show that mistletoe extract, injected under the skin of selected patients with deadly (and largely untreatable) pancreatic cancer, was effective at alleviating some symptoms and improving quality of life. But skeptics point out that the trial was poorly designed, and newer pharmaceutical treatments may spell doom for further inquiries.
But other researchers are not ready to give up on mistletoe. They consider it among the safest complementary medicine treatments for cancer, and note that mistletoe may combat cancer through several different mechanisms. In Europe, it’s still considered a “leading remedy in cancer therapy.” A recent review of research on the use of mistletoe in breast cancer prompted investigators to conclude: “The majority of the included clinical trials suggested a beneficial effect with good evidence with respect to survival, health-related quality of life, positive remission rate, and reduction of chemotherapy causing side effects for breast cancer patients treated with mistletoe extracts.”
Who knew? A ancient late-winter decoration may one day provide a new weapon for the anti-cancer arsenal.