Essiac is an herbal cancer treatment developed by a Canadian nurse, Renée Caisse (1888-1978). (Essiac is Caisse spelled backwards.) Ms. Caisse claimed that the formula had been given to her in 1922 by a patient whose breast cancer had been cured by a traditional native American healer in Ontario.
Thousands of patients have since been treated with this herbal mixture, most of them at Caisse's own Bracebridge Clinic in Ontario. While this clinic was shut down in 1942, the controversy over Essiac simmered for years. Charles Brusch, MD; President John Kennedy's physician is said to have declared in 1959 that "Essiac has merit in the treatment of cancer."
Essiac cannot be freely marketed in either the US or Canada. However, a company in Ontario is allowed to provide Essiac to Canadian patients under a special arrangement with health offcials there. One problem is that Caisse never made the formula public in her lifetime. A number of companies now sell competing "original" Essiac in the form of a tea, but the authenticity of some of these formulas are open to question.
Essiac was tested at both Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSKCC) and the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the 1970s and was said to have no anticancer activity in animal systems. But the mixture remains worth investigating, not just because of persistent anecdotal reports, but because most of its identifiable components have individually shown anticancer properties in independent tests.
- Burdock (Arctium lappa):There have been several studies showing antitumor activity of burdock in animal systems (1,2). (Other studies showed no such effects.) An antimutation factor has also been isolated, which is resistant to both heat and protein digesting enzymes. Scientists at Kawasaki Medical School, Okayama, Japan, called this "the burdock factor" (3). Burdock has also been found to be active in the test tube against the human immuno-defciency virus (HIV) (4). Benzaldehyde, also present in burdock, has been shown to have significant anticancer effects in humans. (Intriguingly, burdock independently was included in another famous secret herbal remedy, the Hoxsey treatment.)
- Indian Rhubarb (Rheum Palmatum):This plant has been demonstrated to have antitumor activity in the sarcoma 37 test system (5). (Again, conflicting tests did not show such activity.) Certain chemicals in Indian rhubarb, such as aloe emodin, catechin and rhein, "have shown antitumor activity in some animal test systems," according to the Office of Technology Assessment report on unconventional cancer treatments (6).
- Sorrel:NCI is said to have tested one sample of Taiwanese sorrel and found no activity against mouse leukemia. But again, aloe emodin, isolated from sorrel, does show "significant antileukemic activity" (7, 8).
- Slippery Elm:NCI tested slippery elm and found no activity. But slippery elm contains beta-sitosterol and a polysaccharide, both of which have shown activity (9).
Several cases of poisoning have been reported from drinking commercial burdock root tea (10). "It is important to consider plant sources in the differential diagnosis of the poisoned patient," Arizona doctors wrote. No acute toxicity was seen with Essiac in the MSKCC tests, although there was said to be a slight weight loss in treated animals. NCI, however, claimed to see lethal toxicity at the highest concentrations of Essiac given to animals.
1. Foldeak S and Dombradi G. Tumor-growth inhibiting substances of plant origin. I. Isolation of the active principle of Arctium lappa. Acta Phys Chem.1964;10:91-93.
2. Dombradi C and Foldeak S. Screening report on the antitumor activity of purified Arctium lappa extracts. Tumori.1966;52:173.
3. Morita K, et al. A desmutagenic factor isolated from burdock (Arctium lappa Linne). Mutat Res.1984;129:25-31.
4. WHO. In vitro screening of traditional medicines for anti-HIV activity: memorandum from a WHO meeting. Bul. WHO (Switzerland), 1989;67:613-618.
5. Belkin M and Fitzgerald D. Tumor damaging capacity of plant materials. 1. Plants used as cathartics. J Natl Cancer Inst.1952;13:139-155.
6. US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Unconventional cancer treatments. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1990.
7. Kupchan SM and Karim A. Tumor inhibitors. Aloe emodin: antileukemic principle isolated from Rhamnus frangula L. Lloydia.1976;39: 223-4.
8. Morita H, et al. Cytotoxic and mutagenic effects of emodin on cultured mouse carcinoma FM3A cells. Mutat Res.1988;204:329-32.
9. Pettit GR, et al. Antineoplastic agents. The yellow jacket Vespula pensylvanica. Lloydia.1977;40:247-52.
10. Rhoads P, et al. Anticholinergic poisonings associated with commercial burdock root tea. J Toxicol.1984-85;22:581-584.
Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. is the author of many books and documentaries on cancer-related topics. He has been an advisor on alternative cancer treatments to the National Institutes of Health, Columbia University, and the University of Texas. He researches and writes The Moss Reports on cancer. For information, please contact coordinator Anne Beattie at 800-980-1234 (814-238-3367 when calling from outside the USA) or email her at email@example.com.
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