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I saw this implausible claim today:

Even scientists now recognize the power agents that exist within some essential oils which stops cancer spreading, and which induces cancerous cells to close themselves down. Their disease-preventing ability is no longer doubted, especially for cancer.

The site makes claims about frankincense oil in particular:

Frankincense separates the ‘brain’ of the cancerous cell – the nucleus – from the ‘body’ – the cytoplasm, and closes down the nucleus to stop it reproducing corrupted DNA codes,” says Suhail.

Frankincense oil is effective because it contains monoterpenes, compounds which have the ability to help eradicate cancerous cells at the onset of their development, as well as their progression stages, making it ideal for those who discover their cancer regardless of when it’s found.

Treatment with frankincense could eradicate the cancerous cells alone and let the others live.

Here are another two sites I found with a quick search that make similar claims for frankincense.

Can frankincense do anything to treat (not just manage symptoms) cancer?

  • The web site contains a Gish gallop of claims. I focussed the question on frankincense so it wasn't too broad. – Oddthinking Jul 20 '15 at 14:14
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    I misread this as "Does Frankenstein cure cancer?" – Richard Jul 20 '15 at 18:22
  • If this works the way chemotherapy does by attacking all cells and relying on cancerous cells' faster replication to kill themselves faster, I would imagine it would turn a human into a pile of goo. – user19022 Jul 20 '15 at 23:27
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    @malvolio - indeed. Which is why I posted it as a comment – Richard Jul 21 '15 at 5:29
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    @malvolio - Ah, I see. In fairness, Frankenstein was a doctor. I'd expect him to be rather better at dealing with cancer. – Richard Jul 21 '15 at 7:22
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Ok, there appears to be something to this.

The description of how they claim it works is pure word salad. Nevertheless I've been surprised checking this out, this would appear to be one of those rare cases where they've picked up on something that's actually getting used in cancer treatment. It does not cure cancer but it may be part of a useful treatment.

So, on to the science.

"Frankincense oil derived from Boswellia carteri induces tumor cell specific cytotoxicity" http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/9/6/

"Frankincense essential oil prepared from hydrodistillation of Boswellia sacra gum resins induces human pancreatic cancer cell death in cultures and in a xenograft murine model" http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/12/253/

Now these 2 are about killing cancer cells in the lab and we all know the problem with that:

xkcd: shooting cells

Now I'm going to focus on "monoterpene perillyl alcohol", one of the monoterpenes in question.

With a quick search I was able to find this trial:

In favor:

"Efficacy of monoterpene perillyl alcohol upon survival rate of patients with recurrent glioblastoma[brain tumor]" http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00432-010-0873-0

Patients with recurrent primary GBM treated with POH survived significantly longer (log rank test, P < 0.0001) than untreated group. Patients with recurrent primary GBM in deep location survived significantly longer than with lobar location (log rank test, P < 0.0001). Median survival rate of secondary GBM was 11.2 months, longer (log rank test, P = 0.0366) than primary GBM (5.9 months). Radiographic improvement and reduction of corticosteroid dosage (36%) further associated with a delay towards progression.

So specific monoterpenes may actually be useful in cancer treatment.

And also this, against:

"Failure to demonstrate chemoprevention by the monoterpene perillyl alcohol during early rat hepatocarcinogenesis: a cautionary note." http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11023545

In conclusion, PA exerted no detectable chemopreventive effect in the early stages of rat hepatocarcinogenesis. It rather exerted a PB-like tumor promoting activity. These data argue against a recommendation of PA as a chemopreventive agent for healthy humans.

So you probably don't want to take it routinely while healthy.

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    Monoterpene are a broad class of compounds, it would be good to remember that only a few would have anticancer activity. – user137 Jul 20 '15 at 17:01
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    @user137 very true. That's partly why I concentrated on the perillyl alcohol which is one of the many in frankincense oil. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4070586 It's also why I included the part about potentially tumor promoting activity. For anyone reading this, don't just take Frankincense oil. If even the one component for which there's evidence that it can be used in chemotherapy also showed "tumor promoting activity" I hate to think what the other components might do. – Murphy Jul 20 '15 at 17:33
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    To answer the exact question posed: No, frankincense is not known to not cure cancer. However, it does make you live 3.6 months longer on average, if you take it nasally and have a recurrent glioblastoma. For other types of cancers, we don't know. (Source: Efficacy of monoterpene perillyl alcohol upon survival rate of patients with recurrent glioblastoma) – Anko Jul 20 '15 at 20:29

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