An Anti-Cancer Compound Has Been Discovered In The American May Apple

Who would have thought that a common weed might hold the key to fighting cancer? Known as the American May Apple the future of cancer fighting might finally be secure through this wild growing perennial plant.

What is the American May Apple?

Officially named the Podophyllum peltatum, this plant is known by a variety of nicknames including the umbrella plant, hog apple and devil’s apple. The May Apple can be found throughout the entire eastern part of the United States of America. Though the plant has another nickname as the American mandrake it can also be found in the southern Canadian provinces of: Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario. In Florida as well as in parts of Quebec, the May Apple is considered to be an endangered plant species. The May Apple is a hardy plant and grows in colonies in forests, marshes, plains and other warm shady areas. The plant has proven itself to be both easy to plant and to grow, therefore showing it has a real potential as a ‘cash crop’.

Early Uses of the American May Apple

The American May Apple has been used for hundreds of years by the Native American people. Early uses of the plant by tribes included treatment of internal worms, for wart removal, a tonic for gastrointestinal issues, treating rheumatism and as a laxative. Tribes even used the roots of the plant to create an insecticide and a large number of reports verify that some tribes may have even used the May Apple to commit suicide. Early settlers were taught the uses of the plant by Native Americans and used the May Apple for fevers, jaundice and as a liver cleanser.

Plant Appearance and Warnings

The stem of the May Apple grows up to 18 inches tall and mature plants are topped off by two or sometimes three leaves that fan out to give the plant a closed umbrella like appearance. The plant blooms a single white flower in May containing between 6 and 9 petals, between its leaves. This flower then turns into a small egg shaped yellowish-greenish fruit that fully matures by the end of August.

All parts of the American May Apple, including the unripe fruit, roots and leaves are highly toxic and could even be fatal if ingested. For some individuals, just touching the plant can result in dermatitis or skin inflammation. The fruit resembles a lime and once it ripens and changes color it is okay to eat, albeit in moderation. The fruit has a sweet and slightly acidic taste, similar to lemons. The fruit is then used to make jams, jellies, cooked in pies, eaten whole either cooked or raw and juiced to create a beverage.

How Can The American May Apple Fight Cancer?

The American May Apple is important to cancer treatment because the herb contains Podophyllotoxin, which is a compound that is utilized in manufacturing etoposide, teniposide, and etopopho, because of its anti-cancer properties. Specifically speaking, the compound has the ability to stop cell division. Cancer drugs used for treating lung cancer, testicular cancer, brain tumors and some forms of leukemia currently make use of the podophyllotoxin compound.

Other derivatives of the compound are also used to treat psoriasis, malaria and rheumatoid arthritis. The compound is also used in products marketed to treat genital warts. This discovery means that the American May Apple offers a viable alternative to the current commercial source of the podophyllotoxin compound, the Podophyllum emodi. Also known as the Indian May Apple this herb grows wild in India, Pakistan, Nepal and China, but extensive over harvesting has left the plant facing extinction.

A large study that was conducted by researchers at the Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi has shown that the American May Apple does have high concentrations of the podophyllotoxin compound. The study examined May Apple colonies in more than a dozen states and examined how soil content and nutrients available affected the May Apple across different locations of the eastern United States. Pharmaceutical companies are looking into the feasibility of commercial production and harvesting of the May Apple to provide enough of the compound needed.

Though the future looks bright for the American May Apple, the plant is far too toxic for at home medicinal treatments. Side effects associated with taking the herb include nausea, dizziness, diarrhea, vomiting, rapid pulse, kidney damage, liver failure, seizures and death. For these reasons individuals wanting to experience the health benefits associated with the American May Apple should seek the advice of a professional herbalist prior to attempting to use the herb at home.

Photo Credit: uwdigitalcollections

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Paulina Nelega, MLT, RH

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