Plant Chemical May Fight Skin Cancer

Could the most common kind of cancer — basal cell skin cancer — be defeated by a chemical in the common corn lily plant?

Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) think it's possible.

It's a David-and-Goliath-sized matchup.

In one corner: basal cell skin cancer, the most common kind of cancer in humans, affecting an estimated 800,000 Americans per year.

The challenger: a compound called cyclopamine, found in the corn lily, a humble, weed-like plant that grows in mountain meadows in the Western U.S.

Cyclopamine Takes on Basal Cell Skin Cancer

Jingwu Xie, assistant professor of pharmacology and toxicity at UTMB, worked with colleagues on the study, which appears in the Oct. 15 issue of the journal Cancer Research.

The scientists pitted cyclopamine against basal cell skin cancer in lab tests with mice.

First, the researchers exposed mice to ultraviolet light from ages 6-32 weeks to develop basal cell skin cancers.

Next, the scientists halted the ultraviolet exposure and gave some of the mice drinking water infused with cyclopamine.

Twenty weeks later, the cyclopamine-drinking mice had reaped several benefits.

They had a 90 percent reduction in microscopic basal cell skin cancers. Compared with the mice that didn't get cyclopamine, the mice drinking cyclopamine also had half the number of new basal cell skin cancers and fewer visible basal cell skin cancers.

Cyclopamine Appeared to be Safe.

The chemical appears to have one simple — but crucial — action. It breaks down a single link in the biochemical reactions that lead to basal cell skin cancer, causing tumor cells to die, according to a news release.

The researchers say it should be possible to create a topical cyclopamine solution.

"Based on the microscopic tumor results, we see a potential to prevent new tumors from developing, while the visible tumor reduction shows us that this can be used for treatment. And since there's no noticeable toxicity to mice, this therapy has great clinical promise," says Xie in a news release.

More Than Just Basal Cell Skin Cancer

In addition to treating basal cell skin cancer, cyclopamine might also prove useful against other cancers.

If you can treat basal cell skin cancers with an oral drug, you should be able to treat other kinds of tumors, too — gastrointestinal tumors, prostate cancers, lung cancers, and some breast cancers, says Xie in the news release.

Further testing should provide more insight into cyclopamine's effects on cancer.

Meanwhile, don't forget the basics of reducing your risk of basal cell skin cancer and other skin cancers. Limit your exposure to bright sunlight and protect yourself with a hat, clothing, or sunscreen.

Basal cell skin cancer is a type of skin cancer that grows slowly, over many months or years. Basal cell skin cancer most often appears on sun-exposed areas, such as the head, face, neck, back, chest, and shoulders.

By Miranda Hitti; reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Athar, M. Cancer Research, Oct. 15, 2004. News release, University of Texas Medical Branch. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Skin Cancer, Nonmelanoma: What Happens." WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Basal Cell Skin Cancer."