Study reveals ‘secret weapon’ against cancer: A compound from magnolia tree, used for centuries in traditional medicine, may have power to beat head and neck cancers. 

Magnolia flowers are revered for their scent and their beautiful color. But according to new studies, the ornamental tree also hides a secret weapon against some types of cancer.

One such study was conducted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) and was funded by the US Department of Veteran Affairs. Squamous cell head and neck cancers were the focus of the study. Such cancers are common in alcohol and tobacco users and make up 90% of all head and neck cancers.

According to the National Cancer Institute, these cancers have only a 50% survival rate with 20,000 Americans killed annually.

But how can the magnolia tree help? There is a phytochemical present in the bark of the tree known as honokiol. It has been used in traditional Japanese and Chinese herbal medicines to treat anxiety and other problems for centuries.

Honokiol is just one of the active compounds in magnolia extract and is quite a versatile enemy of cancer, as scientists have found out recently. It not only disrupts many biochemical pathways to shrink tumors but it can also keep them from growing.

In fact, according to the team at UAB and Veteran Affairs, the honokiol binds to a prominent protein known as Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor, (EGFR), even strongly than a drug commonly used to treat head and neck cancers. This drug is geftinib and is sold as Iressa for treating the cancers.

The UAB scientists explored honokiol’s mechanism of action and found that the protein EGFR is over abundantly found in all head and neck cancers. Previous literature studies have pinpointed the protein as a potential target for controlling the cancers and honokiol does exactly that: it blocks the EGFR protein.

Dr. Santosh K. Katiyar, senior author of the study along with his colleagues observed in a press release that, “Conclusively, honokiol appears to be an attractive bioactive small molecule phytochemical for the management of head and neck cancer which can be used either alone or in combination with other available therapeutic drugs.”

The scientists also tested the honokiol to see whether it worked just as well on other cancers. Cell lines of human cancers of the larynx, pharynx, tongue and oral cavity were subjected to treatment of honokiol.

The abnormal cells were all shut down by the phytochemical. Similar results were observed in mice that had tumors implanted in them. The research findings were published in the journal Oncotarget.