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Karmanos, WSU SOM researchers study holy basil as potential inhibitor of human breast carcinoma cells

In the realm of biotherapeutics and natural plant therapy, holy basil could be the next big breakthrough in the field’s bustling anticancer movement.

A team of Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute and Wayne State University School of Medicine (WSU SOM) researchers in Detroit has shown in an experimental tumor system that ocimum gratissimum, also known as African basil, inhibits the growth of human breast carcinoma cells.

The discovery could lead to clinical trials using the plant in concentrated form for treatment of breast cancer, and possibly other types of cancer.

Even cooking with the plant or eating it raw could have health benefits, said principal investigator Avraham Raz, Ph.D., a professor of Pathology, Radiation Oncology and Oncology at Karmanos and WSU SOM.

“We will know after the clinical trial. This drug can be consumed continuously, as it has no side effects and it is non-toxic,” Dr. Raz said.

The study, “Ocimum gratissimum retards breast cancer growth and progression and is a natural inhibitor of matrix metalloproteases,” is on the May cover of the science journal Cancer Biology & Therapy.

The plant, a dietary herb from the mint family Lameacea, is already used for its pharmacologic properties, including anticancer activity. It is absent in the continental United States but grows wild in Hawaii, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The study shows that the herb inhibits the degrading enzyme responsible for facilitating breast cancer invasion and metastasis to other parts of the body, Dr. Raz said. The enzyme, matrix metalloproteases, or MMPs, is a family of at least 28 structurally and functionally-related zinc-dependent endoproteinases, which selectively degrade various components of extracellular matrix and lead to cancer cell growth according to the study article. Of the various MMP types thought to be involved in cancer, the team focused on MMP-2 and MMP-9, because they are overexpressed in a variety of malignant tumors, and their expression and activities are often associated with aggressive tumors and a poor prognosis for patients. Elevated levels of both are found in breast, brain, ovarian, pancreas, colorectal, bladder, prostate, lung cancers and melanoma. The study reports that ocimum gratissimum inhibits cancer grow, partly due to its property as a natural, non-toxic inhibitor of MMP-2 and MMP-9.

The study is on the cutting edge of plant therapy and the biotherapeutics revolution, Dr. Raz said.

"Many traditional or folk remedies have a basis in reality – that is, they work – and are the backbone of modern medicine,” he added.

In addition to Dr. Raz, the study team included Pratima Nangia-Makker, Ph.D., of the departments of Oncology and Pathology at Karmanos and WSU SOM; Tirza Raz, member of the Department of Oncology at WSU SOM; Larry Tait, research associate with Karmanos and WSU SOM, Malathy Shekhar, Ph.D., associate professor of Oncology at WSU SOM and the Molecular Therapeutics Program of Karmanos Cancer Institute; Hong Li, Ph.D., of the Department of Biological and Chemical Engineering, Chongqing University of Education, Chongqing, China; Vitaly Balan, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Oncology at Karmanos and WSU SOM; Hemanckur Makker, a member of the Department of Chemistry at WSU SOM:  Rafael Fridman, Ph.D., associate professor in the Cancer Biology Program at Karmanos and WSU SOM; and Krishnarao Maddipati, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pathology at WSU SOM.

The study was funded by a National Cancer Institute grant (R37CA046120-19).

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