Cancer is a leading cause of illness and death worldwide. In 2015, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recorded 8.8 million cancer-related deaths and nearly twice that are diagnosed each year. Since people are living longer, cancer diagnoses is likely to continue to increase by about 70% for at least the next two decades.

Given that more cancers are likely in the developing world, the search is on for treatments  that are simple and inexpensive to manufacture. The answer may lie in herbal medicine. The problem, as always, is that while there are numerous anecdotes about those, there are few studies. 

A team recently looked at three plants out of dozens claimed to have benefits; Juniperus phoenicea (Arar or Phoenican juniper), Anastatica hierochuntica (Kaff Maryam or the Jericho rose) and Citrullus colocynthis (Hanzal or bitter cucumber). They cell-based phenotypic profiling via imaging-based high-content screening to assess anti-cancer activity - a comprehensive marker panel with standardized settings allowing them to compare the cytological profiles of fractions taken from the plants with a set of reference compounds with established mechanisms of action.

They found that these three plants contain potent anticancer substances—topoisomerase inhibitors, which are compounds that can block the topoisomerase enzymes that control changes in DNA—that could be used to develop novel anticancer inhibitors. Or not. They haven't even been synthesized and tested in vivo yet, but the hunt continues.

Citation: Hajjar, D., Kremb, S., Sioud, S., Emwas, A. H., Voolstra, C. R.,&Ravasi, T. Anti-cancer agents in Saudi Arabian herbals revealed by automated high-content imaging. PLoS One 12, e0177316