Plant science in...

Plant science in Breast Cancer Awareness Month

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer, making it the most common cancer in women. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign that aims to highlight research into breast cancer. Last month, my wonderful Mum was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. While she’s undergoing treatment, I decided I would distract myself by doing what I do best – researching plants.

In this post, we’re going to meet three plant species that are being actively researched as treatment against breast cancer. Wear it Pink is a campaign associated with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, so I’ve taken this post a step further and found three pink species, using a review by George and Abrahamse [1].

Mysore Raspberry

You may be surprised to know that there are more than one species of Raspberry. The genus Rubus which contains Raspberries also contains Blackberries and Dewberries. In total, there are estimated to be up to 200 edible species in the Rubus genus. Of those, Mysore Raspberries (Rubus niveus) are one of the few that are able to grow in Tropical climates.

Mysore Raspberries are native in regions in the Middle East to Southern Asia, including Afghanistan, India, China and Malaysia. The species has also found a home in Hawaii and the Galápagos, where it is now invasive. Unlike the Raspberries we’re used to, Mysore Raspberries darken to a deep purple and have a much sweeter taste.

Many species of Raspberry have been shown to reduce the spread of breast cancer cells (specifically MCF-7 cells). A recent study by George et al. [2] aimed to investigate whether this anti-tumour activity extended to Mysore Raspberries. Root extracts were taken from Mysore Raspberries and they showed a high content of flavonoid compounds, including Rutin and Quercetin, which are known to have anti-cancer effects.

Taking this one step further, the root extracts were found to have significant activity against chemically induced tumours. Further research would need to be conducted to into this extract to determine which chemicals are responsible for this activity.

Rose Periwinkle

Our next species is endemic to Madagascar, landing it with one of its common names, Madagascar Periwinkle. In the UK, we know it as the Rose Periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus), but it’s also known as Bright Eyes, Old Maid and the Graveyard Plant. In its endemic land it is endangered, but world wild it is grown as a medicinal and ornamental plant.

In the state of Louisiana, USA, Rose Periwinkles are illegal to grow, as part of an act designed to outlaw the cultivation of 40 suspected or rumoured hallucinogenic plants. This is due to the fact that the plant can be toxic if consumed. But the same chemicals that make it toxic, when used appropriately, make this one of the most famous anti-cancer plants.

Two chemotherapy medications, vinblastine and vincristine, are found in extracts of Rose Periwinkle. While vinblastine is commonly used to treat Hodgkins’ Disease, vincristine improves the chance of surviving childhood leukaemia. However, extracts of Rose Periwinkle contain many other chemicals, which are being investigated for treating several types of cancer.

A study in 2012 [3] investigated the use of alkaloids (chemical compounds) from whole Rose Periwinkle plants against breast cancer cells. Their in vitro cytotoxic activities were evaluated, meaning how toxic the alkaloids were to isolated cancer cells. Many of these compounds caused a marked reduction in cell viability. Research like this helps outline which compounds to investigate further in the hunt for anti-cancer treatments.

Simpoh Ayer

We have journeyed around the world in this post and landed in Brunei for our final species. Simpoh Ayer (Dillenia suffruticosa) is the national flower of Brunei. It is found in swampy forest ground, this iconic species has big, beautiful, yellow flowers and pink, star-shaped fruits. The large leaves are often used to wrap food, almost like bio-clingfilm.

This is the first time I’ve written about a plant getting its name in this way, but the name ‘Simpoh’ is derived from the hissing noise the plant makes when it is cut. The plant’s leaves and fruits have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, and interestingly, the Rungus people of Kudat (from Sabah, Malaysia) use the fruits to treat cancerous growths [4].

A common theme in many of my posts is science imitating tradition. While not all traditional medicines prove to be effective, Simpoh Ayer really can be used to treat cancer, including breast cancer. In 2013, a study [5] was published showing that Simpoh Ayer extracts were able to inhibit the spread of breast cancer cells (types MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231).

The extracts of Simpoh Ayer eliminated breast cancer cells through the promotion of apoptosis (which is like a self-destruct button in cells) and cell cycle arrest (preventing the cells from performing their natural cycle). Inhibiting cancer cells in this way is very effective, so determining which chemical in this extract causes it will be an important next step.

We have looked to nature to cure us of our ailments since the dawn of humanity. In modern medicine, the same is still true. Around 7000 Western prescription medications come from plant derivatives. While it’s frustrating not being able to help my mum, it’s wonderful being able to see the medical advancements available to us, waiting in our gardens, forests and fields.

You might have met my Mum in my English Bluebells post. If you haven’t, she’s a major part of my journey into becoming a Plant Scientist. I’m extremely grateful to her and my Dad for encouraging my interests and allowing me to pursue a career that makes me truly happy. For more botanical content, follow Fronds with Benefits here, on TwitterInstagram or Facebook, so you never miss a blog post.


[1] George, B. P. A. & Abrahamse, H. (2016). A review on novel breast cancer therapies: Photodynamic therapy and plant derived agent induced cell death mechanisms. Anti-Cancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry (Formerly Current Medicinal Chemistry-Anti-Cancer Agents)16(7), 793-801.

[2] George, B. P. A., Parimelazhagan, T., Sajeesh, T. & Saravanan, S. (2014). Antitumor and wound healing properties of Rubus niveus Thunb. root. Journal of Environmental Pathology, Toxicology and Oncology33(2).

[3] Wang, C. H., Wang, G. C., Wang, Y., Zhang, X. Q., Huang, X. J., Zhang, D. M., Chen, M. F. & Ye, W. C. (2012). Cytotoxic dimeric indole alkaloids from Catharanthus roseusFitoterapia83(4), 765-769.

[4] Saiful Yazan, L. & Armania, N. (2014). Dillenia species: A review of the traditional uses, active constituents and pharmacological properties from pre-clinical studies. Pharmaceutical biology52(7), 890-897.

[5] Armania, N., Yazan, L. S., Ismail, I. S., Foo, J. B., Tor, Y. S., Ishak, N., Ismail, N. & Ismail, M. (2013). Dillenia suffruticosa extract inhibits proliferation of human breast cancer cell lines (MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231) via induction of G2/M arrest and apoptosis. Molecules, 18(11), 13320-13339.

Image credits

Mysore Raspberry: Vinayaraj / CC BY-SA

Rose Periwinkle: Joydeep / CC BY-SA

Simpoh Ayer: Mokkie / CC BY-SA


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