NIZWA, Oman—Scientists in Oman’s mountainous interior are trying to use a national symbol—the frankincense tree—to fight the national problem of rising cancer rates.
Ahmed al-Harrasi, professor of organic chemistry at the University of Nizwa, is extracting acid from the tree’s sap and manipulating the compound to test its ability to kill cancer cells in the lab. He’s trying to test a traditional belief that frankincense has cancer-fighting properties.
The results so far show that extracts from the sap can kill cancer cells in a laboratory setting. “Frankincense could prove to be potent in killing cancer,” al-Harrasi says.
The sap from the trees has been valuable since ancient times, as incense and for use in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. Now al-Harrasi and his research partner, Fahad al-Zadjali, a researcher from Sultan Qaboos University College of Medicine and Health Sciences, in Muscat, are trying to see if its medicinal value can be applied to prostate and breast cancers.
These cancers were chosen over others because they mainly affect men and women, respectively; in medical research, gender is often excluded as a variable to consider when examining drug effectiveness. “That’s why we wanted to focus on two types of cancer, one male and one female,” says al-Zadjali.
The researchers also picked these cancers because they are worryingly on the rise in Oman.
Studies have shown that the number of breast cancer cases in the sultanate nearly doubled between 1996 and 2008. Approximately one in five Omani women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, and it is the second leading cause of death in Oman.
Breast cancer patients in Oman are typically younger than those in Europe and North America. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact cause, but experts have cited poor education and awareness, cultural barriers, and a lack of regular screenings for the disease.
Prostate cancer shows a similar picture. Ten years ago, it overtook stomach cancer to become the number one cancer among Omani men.
“We get cancers at an earlier age here, and it’s more aggressive. Some people think it could be genetic, and others talk about urbanization and the lifestyle that comes with it—the unhealthy food, the pollution and the smoking,” says al-Zadjali.
“It’s an Arab-wide problem,” he adds.
The scientists working on the frankincense tree’s therapeutic effects have extracted a compound called boswellic acid from the tree’s sap. The acid is produced in plants in the Boswellia genus, to which frankincense belongs.
They noted how the acid interacts with cancer cells in petri dishes. But critically, they have also slightly modified the chemical structure of the compound—although they decline to describe how until a patent has been granted. “The modification is to improve the potency, so you wouldn’t have to give it so frequently to the patient,” says al-Zadjali.
The acid was tested on not just prostate and breast cancer cells, but also normal cells. “We realized that it’s able to kill only the cancer cell lines. It’s able to somehow differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells,” says al-Harrasi.
This selectivity could mean patients experience fewer side effects, such as the gastrointestinal upset and hair loss that often come with cancer therapies.
The pair aim to discover how this compound gets its cancer‑fighting efficacy.
“We’re trying to understand the whole story of the frankincense tree—where it’s grown, the microorganisms that grow on it, the cellular biology of the tree and the microorganisms that grow in the soil. In other words: Is the medicinal property a plant or microorganism product?” says al-Harrasi.
The hope is that this work will help create a drug that can pass the various animal and later human trials that are needed to satisfy regulatory authorities before approving a treatment.