St John’s Wort Could Have Benefit in Treatment of Recurrent Brain Tumours

Science is always fond of taking natural substances active ingredients and synthesizing them such as foxgloves into digitalis and white willow into aspirin. Now it is the turn of St. John’s wort which is more commonly known for its ability to treat depression because it contains hypericin, a compound naturally found in the plant.
Researchers have found that a synthetic version may be a promising treatment for patients with recurrent malignant brain tumors and they published their results online on March 31, 2011 in the journal Cancer.

Malignant gliomas, tumors that arise in the brain or spine, are largely incurable cancers with a poor prognosis and an average one-year survival. Gliomas are typically treated with a combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy. Now, laboratory studies have shown that synthetic hypericin strongly inhibits the growth of gliomas, due in part to its inhibitory effect on protein kinase C, a family of enzymes that promotes tumor proliferation.

The study was done at the University of Utah School of Medicine, and I suppose I am curious as to why they used a synethesised version as opposed to the real thing. We know from aspirin use that isolating the individual component that deals with pain relief and synthesizing it means you do not get the full synergistic effect of the whole plant. In the case of aspirin you don’t get the protection of the other parts of white willow that buffer the active ingredient and protect against stomach problems – something that regularly occurs with aspirin use.

In this study, the researchers gave the patients gradually increasing dosages of synthetic hypericin and monitored them for adverse effects. Forty percent of the study participants were able to complete a three-month treatment regimen, demonstrating that hypericin is well-tolerated as an oral medication in this patient group. They found that 22 percent of all study participants achieved either stable disease or a partial response during treatment with hypericin. Of the 18 patients who completed at least 60 days of hypericin treatment, 50 percent achieved either stable disease or a partial response.

The patients enrolled in the study were all individuals whose tumors had recurred or progressed after extensive prior therapy and I wonder if they had been given whole St John’s Wort if those improvement figures would have increased. Of course you cannot patent a natural substance and so it is of little interest to pharmaceutical companies as there is not the same profit level to be made and that is only one of the reasons that natural substances are extracted and synthesized.