I'm fascinated by a recent German study. In the highly regarded department of stereotactic neurosurgery at the University of Cologne, Dr. Doris Lenartz and Prof. Josef Beuth administered an extract of mistletoe to 19 patients with stage III or IV brain cancer, in addition to their conventional treatment (which included surgery and radiotherapy). Another group of 19 patients received only the conventional treatment.

The complementary treatment, which lasted three months, took the form of two subcutaneous injections per week of a very small amount (1 nanogram per kilo of body weight at each injection) of a standardized preparation of viscum album (the Latin and medical name of mistletoe extracts).

Almost four years after their injections began, after a 50 month follow up, the patients who had received these injections had on average lived for twice as long as those who benefited from conventional treatment only.

mistletoeDruids across Europe employed mistletoe throughout ancient times. It is a parasitic plant that attaches to certain trees, probing them with little suckers that capture the sap of their host. European druids discovered that mistletoe had a number of medicinal properties, and used it against frostbite and disorders of the nervous system (including epilepsy), as well as cardiac arrhythmia and digestive troubles. Incredibly, they also discovered that they should avoid cutting the plant with a blade of base metal, and thus used a golden scythe to harvest it. Since then researchers have discovered that when mistletoe is in contact with the rust of base metal, its active phytochemical elements may oxydize and indeed lose their effectiveness.

Today practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine mostly value mistletoe as an immunomodulator: in other words, it helps the immune system to work better. This may be the principal explanation for its beneficial effect in some types of cancer. But like any natural substance, mistletoe extract cannot be patented, and so it's difficult to find funds to initiate large-scale studies into its possible efficacy in cancer treatment.

I visited Prs. Beuth and Lenartz at the University of Cologne at the beginning of March. They confirmed that they had been impressed with the results of their study and that they would recommend mistletoe injections of that type especially in cancers that have a strong sensitivity to immune reactions : this includes melanomas, kidney cancers, and cervical cancers. They suggested that it be supervised by a physician or practitioner well-versed in the uses of this ancient treatment, which, unfortunately, is not always easy to find outside of continental Europe.

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1. Lenartz, D., et al., Survival of glioma patients after complementary treatment with galactoside-specific lectin from mistletoe. Anticancer Research, 2000. 20(3B): p. 2073-6.