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Magnolia Extract Fights Difficult-to-Treat Cancers

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Cancer related image Photo: Getty Images

Oral squamous cell carcinoma, B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and lung cancer are all difficult to treat with conventional chemotherapy. Researchers have found that extracts from the Magnolia grandiflora plant are effective in fighting these three cancers in laboratory models. The reported mechanism was induction of apoptosis in each case. Honokiol, magnolol, and parthenolide are the compounds believed to be the active ingredients.

Dr. Xi-rui Chen of the University of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and colleagues tested honokiol on squamous cell carcinoma. This type of cancer has a response rate of only 30 to 40 percent to most commonly used cytotoxic chemotherapy agents in large studies. Earlier research indicates that these cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy drugs by a mechanism of circumventing apoptosis. The toxicity to peripheral blood mononuclear cells and primary cultured human cells has been reported to be low. Since normal cells have a different physiology from cancer cells, Chen suggested that honokiol's ability to induce apoptosis could make it a novel treatment agent, selectively killing the cancer. Honokiol was effective in killing oral squamous cell carcinoma cells in lab studies by induction of apoptosis in Chen's work.

Dr. Gustavo H. Marin and colleagues at the National University of La Plata, Buenos Aires, Argentina, reported similar results for B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (B-CLL). This type of cancer can be managed, but not cured, as the name suggests. The prognosis has not improved despite years of research. Marin used a water extract of Magnolia seeds to induce apoptosis in B-CLL cells, including cells that were resistant to chlorambucil. From the successful results, he concluded that the herbal extract is a promising therapy strategy.

For lung cancer, Dr. Qi-qi Jiang and colleagues at the West China Medical School reported that honokiol kills lung cancer cells in a lab xenograph model, both alone and in combination with the standard chemotherapy agent cisplatin. The mechanism was apoptosis, as in the other studies.

For safety issues, Dr. Melissa E. Munroe and colleagues at the University of Iowa reported that honokiol had no adverse effects in treating an animal model of rheumatoid arthritis. Honokiol “has long been used in traditional Asian medicine without toxic side effects,” she added.

I found clinical trials of magnolia extracts for other conditions at http://clinicaltrials.gov. For cancer, the promising lab results have not yet been verified in humans.


1. Chen XR et al, “Honokiol: A promising small molecular weight natural for the growth inhibition of oral squamous cell carcinoma cells”, International Journal of Oral Science 2011; 3:34-42.

2. Marin GH et al, “Apoptosis induced by Magnolia Grandiflora extract in chlorambucil-resistant B-chronic lymphocytic leukemia cells”, Journal of Cancer Research and Therapeutics 2010 October-December; 6(4): 463-5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21358081

3. Jiang QQ et al, “Improved therapeutic effectiveness by combining liposomal honokiol with cisplatin in lung cancer model” BMC Cancer 2008; 8: 242.

4. Munroe ME et al, “Honokiol, a natural plant product, inhibits inflammatory signals and alleviates inflammatory arthritis”, Journal of Immunology 2007 Jul 15; 179(9): 753-63. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17617564

Reviewed June 22, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton

Linda Fugate is a scientist and writer in Austin, Texas. She has a Ph.D. in Physics and an M.S. in Macromolecular Science and Engineering. Her background includes academic and industrial research in materials science. She currently writes song lyrics and health articles.

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