From The Cancer Chronicles #30
© Dec. 1995 by Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D.

The peeling white bark of the common birch tree (Betula alba) has inspired poets as one of the most beautiful sights, especially in northern climbs. The Russians consider the birch their most beautiful tree. It also intrigues scientists, since it is an ancient tree, whose fossil forms go back to the upper Cretaceous period.

The white birch remains abundant from the Arctic Circle to Florida and Texas. A good old tree can reach a height of 45 to 50 feet.

American Indians tapped the birch for its sap, for a beverage and as a syrup. Oil of wintergreen can be distilled from its inner bark and twigs. Traditionally, it has been used for treatment of diarrhea, dysentery, cholera, and all diseases of the alimentary tract. It is said to be a good "blood cleanser." It has been an approved medication in Russia since 1834.

Traditionally, a teaspoon of the leaves or bark are infused in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes. A person drinks three to five cups per day. It is said to mix well with other herbal teas.

Externally applied, it is a traditional treatment for "eczema and cutaneous diseases," according to Alma R. Hutchens, A Handbook of Native American Herbs). So it should be little surprise that the white birch may be a source of potent chemicals useful in the fight against melanoma and other kinds of cancer.

In 1994, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reported that compounds found in white birch bark (in this case isolated from the leaves of an evergreen tree, Syzigium claviforum) were potent inhibitors of the HIV virus, the putative cause of AIDS (J Nat Prod 1994;57:243-247). In August of that year, French drug company scientists reported at the International Conference on AIDS (abs. PA0316) that different compounds found in birch bark were "very potent anti-HIV-1 agents acting by a novel mode of action."

Then in March, 1995, John Pezzuto of the University of Illinois, Chicago reported that one of these compounds, calledbetulinic acid, was able to kill human melanoma cells transplanted into mice.

Dr. Pezzuto extracted betulin from birches found in an old woodpile near his Chicago laboratory (Cancer Biotech Weekly, 4/3/95) and converted this into betulinic acid. According to the scientist, betulinic acid "worked better than the drug most commonly used in people to treat melanoma."

Unlike conventional chemotherapy, this compound caused no apparent side effects and, for obvious reasons, is potentially very inexpensive. According to Dr. Pezzuto, about 50 pounds of bark provides enough betulinic acid for 100 doses of betulinic acid for people (8 oz. of bark per dose). Pezzuto, who is head of medicinal chemistry at the university's Pharmacy School, said he hopes human testing will begin within a year or so.

In the Chicago experiment, researchers transplanted melanoma cells into mice's legs. Once these cells had formed tumors large enough to feel, the animals received six injections of betulinic acid, one dose every three days.

The scientist told a major cancer meeting in Toronto that in one group of five mice, the betulinic acid treatment shrank tumors by 70 percent in two of the animals and 40 percent in two others. In four out of five mice who received a different strain of melanoma, the tumors virtually disappeared. In another kind of mouse which received betulinic acid at the same time that melanoma cells were injected, these cells refused to form tumors.

Dr. Antonio Buzaid of the University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston is strongly in favor of testing the substance. "History has taught us to be cautiously optimistic," he said, about an anti-cancer substance that works well in animals. And Matt Suffness, of the National Cancer Institute (NCI), said the Illinois data "looks good." This compound "has the potential for being a reasonably nontoxic treatment for certain types of melanoma," Suffness has said.

Dr. Pezzuto cautions that nobody knows yet whether the substance will actually help melanoma patients. He has also been quoted as saying that people should not try to concoct home remedies out of birch bark—although people have been doing just that for hundreds, possibly thousands of years.... Purified betulinic acid may turn out to be active against not just melanoma but some other kinds of cancer as well. Obviously, this topic is crying out for further, vigorous testing. Dr. Klausner [DIRECTOR OF NCI, ED.]—are you listening?

Ralph W. Moss, Ph.D. is director of the The Moss Reports for cancer patients. Dr. Moss is the author of eleven books and three documentaries on cancer-related topics. He is or has been an advisor on alternative cancer treatments to the National Institutes of Health, the National Cancer Institute, the American Urological Association, Columbia University, the University of Texas, the Susan G. Komen Foundation and the German Society of Oncology. He wrote the first article on alternative medicine for the Encyclopedia Britannica yearbook. He is listed in Marquis Who's Who in America, Who's Who in the World, Who's Who in the East, and Who's Who in Entertainment (as a film documentarian). This Web site does not advocate any particular treatment for cancer. We urge you to always seek competent medical advice for all health problems, especially cancer. Before consulting our site please read our full Disclaimer statement.

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