A Compound In Daffodils Could Help Kill Cancer Cells, Study Finds

When the daffodils start to bloom, you know spring is coming. Usually the happy, open-faced flower signals the coming of sunny days, colored eggs, and new beginnings. So it’s appropriate that it’s a chosen symbol for the American Cancer Society’s “Daffodil Days” fundraiser for cancer research.

Daffodils are symbols of hope, and perhaps more so than we thought.

Could daffodils also be butt-kicking cancer fighters?

Some compelling research has found that a compound in daffodils, Hemanthamine (HAE), which is a natural alkaloid, may be able to uniquely fight cancer cells.

Photo: pixabay/mobasoft24
Photo: pixabay/mobasoft24

Alkaloids are naturally occurring plant-based chemicals that have a physiological effect on the human body. Other alkaloids have been used to create such important drugs as morphine, quinine (anti-malaria drug), and ephedrine.

Cancer cells are resistant to cell death, but HAE from daffodils fights that resistance by attacking ribosomes. Ribosomes are important because they exist in all living cells and create proteins. Without protein production, a cell dies. HAE blocks ribosomes from creating proteins and blocks ribosomes themselves from being produced. The study also indicates that the cell stress caused by HAE activates p53, a tumor suppressor protein, that goes on to kill cancer cells.

Photo: flickr/Jerry Gammon
Photo: flickr/Jerry Gammon

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That is quite the resumé for a flower you can pick up at every grocery store just before Easter. How seriously can we take this research?

On one hand, daffodils have been used as medicine for thousands of years. On the other hand, even WebMD says that consuming daffodils, in whole or in part, is unsafe. The side effects include, but are not limited to, vomiting, diarrhea, lung collapse, and death.

So we won’t be munching on raw daffodils anytime soon. But the HAE molecule may still be useful when isolated and targeted at cancer cells. This study provides for the first time a molecular explanation to the anti-tumoral activity of daffodils used for centuries in folk medicine.

Photo: pixabay/Mareefe
Photo: pixabay/Mareefe

The research in this case is still very early. Scientists are currently testing other compounds found in daffodils to see which might be the most promising, and a marketable drug, if one is created, is still a long way off. The journey from possibility to reality is always slower than we’d like.

For now the daffodil remains a sweet-smelling symbol of spring, but perhaps it holds a little more hope than before.

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