A plant that has been linked to liver damage could one day reduce lung cancer in smokers.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy and Masonic Cancer Center authored a study, released earlier this month, linking daily consumption of the kava plant to a 99 percent reduction of lung cancer tissue in mice exposed to tobacco carcinogens.
The plant, which is native to the South Pacific, has caused rare but serious liver problems. Researchers say clinical trials are still necessary before humans can start safely using kava for its possible cancer prevention properties.
In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration issued an official warning for kava products, citing more than 25 reports of users developing liver problems — four so severe they required liver transplants. In the federal agency’s statement, it said kava-induced liver damage is uncommon but “consumers should be informed of this potential risk.”
Chengguo Xing, study senior author and associate medicinal chemistry professor, said the last thing he wants to see is people who’ve heard about the study going out and buying kava with hopes of reducing their cancer risk.
Despite questions about kava’s safety, Pablo Leitzman, study lead author and senior lab technician, said he’s optimistic about the possible applications of the research.
“It really has actually amazed me in terms of the beauty behind the science of what [kava] seems to be able to do,” Leitzman said. “I truly believe now after working with this for a long time that it will have an impact in the future.”
Kava is often marketed as an anti-anxiety medication for its mild sedative properties, Xing said. But its associations with liver problems spawned a series of investigations and studies and even resulted in a temporary ban in European markets.
But Xing and his colleagues said they’ve isolated its cancer-preventing properties.
“We also identified the compounds or components in kava that may account for its liver risk, and they are different [compounds in the plant],” he said.
Their patent-pending formula excludes the compound associated with liver damage, Xing said, and has successfully prevented cancer development in mice without causing liver issues.
On the market today, kava is often sold as an herbal supplement or tea. For example, Kava Colada — a blend of kava, coconut and pineapple in a powder mix — is marketed as a way to relieve stress.
Vicki Rafn, retail manager at Tao Natural Foods in Minneapolis, said kava is popular among customers for stress and pain relief and even recreation.
“We sell enough to carry four different companies’ variations of it,” she said.
Leitzman said he’s anxious to start clinical testing, but the team needs to wait for more funding before that process can start — likely in the next couple of years.
“From the moment a compound is tested to the moment it actually gets into clinical trials can take a long number of years,” he said.
Leitzman said the research isn’t meant to minimize the risks of smoking but may help mitigate cancer risk while people try to quit.
In the 2013 Boynton Health Service College Student Health Survey, nearly 15 percent of all Twin Cities campus students said they use tobacco products. Of the students who consider themselves smokers, almost 65 percent said they made at least one attempt to quit smoking in the last year.
Dorothy Hatsukami, associate director of cancer prevention and control for the Masonic Cancer Center, said she’s excited about the kava research findings but wants to remind students that not smoking is always the best option.
Smoking causes not only lung cancer but also other ailments like pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases, Hatsukami said.
“So a person that thinks they can just take kava and prevent the diseases associated with smoking, they’re mistaken,” she said.