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Archaeological Oncology Project Uncovers Cancer-Fighting Compounds in Ancient Herbal Beverages

Archaeological Oncology Project Uncovers Cancer-Fighting Compounds in Ancient Herbal Beverages

New research has revealed that some ancient cultures’ botanical cancer treatments may in fact be viable. This news comes from from “Archaeological Oncology: Digging for Drug Discovery,” a collaborative effort between the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s (UPM) Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory and Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia.

Archaeological Oncology researchers tested remnants of alcoholic herbal beverages from ancient Egypt and China, and found that several plant-derived compounds present in the samples showed lung- and colon-cancer-fighting activity.1

According to archaeochemist Patrick McGovern, PhD—the scientific director of the UPM Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health—the Egyptian and Chinese samples were selected for the Archaeological Oncology project in part because the lab had already been performing tests on them (oral communication, October 28, 2010). “[T]hey are very important samples, some of the earliest … and we went back and we reanalyzed them,” said Dr. McGovern. “We just used a whole series of these more precise methods to start getting the compounds that would give us clues as to what the additives were.”

Residue from an ancient Egyptian wine was procured from a jar dating back to ca. 3150 BCE; it had been buried with pharaoh Scorpion I of Dynasty 0.1 (The potential general medicinal use of this wine sample was discussed in HerbalGram 2009; 83:22-23.) The substance was identified as a grape (Vitus spp., Vitaceae) wine through Liquid Chromatography Tandem Mass Spectrometry and Headspace Solid Phase Microextraction and Thermal Desorption Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (TD GC-MS). Researchers also determined that the wine contained “pine and/or terebinth tree resin” (Pinus spp., Pinaceae/Pistacia spp., Anacardiaceae). Based on the presence of 8 terpenoid compounds—including camphor, borneol, carvone, linalool, L-menthol, thymol, α-terpineol, and geranyl acetone—it is believed the wine contained Levantine herbs, likely savory (Satureja spp., Lamiaceae), wormwood (Artemisia annua, Asteraceae) and/or mugwort (A. argyi), tansy (Tanacetum spp., Asteraceae), balm (Melissa spp., Lamiaceae), senna (Senna spp., Fabaceae), coriander (Coriandrum spp., Apiaceae), germander (Teucrium spp., Lamiaceae), mint (Mentha spp., Lamiaceae), sage (Salvia spp., Lamiaceae), and thyme (Thymus spp., Lamiaceae).1

According to a review published in the International Journal of Oncology, these herbal ingredients suggested to the researchers that the wine was likely intended to dispense a drug, as there are numerous records of ancient Egyptian prescriptions for herbal wines and beers.1

The ancient Chinese beverage tested by the Archaeological Oncology project had been preserved as a liquid inside a bronze jar from ca. 1050 BCE, found in the Changzikou Tomb in the Henan Province.1 Analysis by TD GC-MS exposed camphor and α-cedrene in the liquid, as well as “benzaldehyde, acetic acid, and short-chain alcohols characteristic of rice [Oryza sativa, Poaceae] and grape wines.”1 Through further testing, the researchers were able to determine that the beverage was rice-based, and that the aromatic compounds, camphor and α-cedrene, may have come from China fir (Cunninghamia lanceolata, Cupressaceae), a type of chrysanthemum (Dendranthema spp., Asteraceae), or perhaps 1 or 2 species of the genus Artemisia (such as wormwood or mugwort).1

“If an Artemisia species explains the presence of camphor and α-cedrene, then the plant’s leaves had probably been steeped in rice wine, as is still done in TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine],” wrote the researchers in their review.1

In vitro testing, an additional activity of the Archaeological Oncology Project, found artemisinin, a compound originating in wormwood, to be active against both lung and colon cancers. Artesunate—a less toxic “semi-synthetic analogue” of artemisinin—proved even more effective than artemisinin against colon cancer and several other cancers. Additionally, compounds derived from the ancient beverages, including borneol, isoscopoletin, and ursolic acid, also inhibited tumor growth in laboratory tests.1

According to John Riddle, PhD, distinguished professor emeritus of history at North Carolina State University, modern civilization has “absolutely” lost many effective, ancient, botanical treatments for cancer (e-mail, October 28, 2010). In an article titled “Ancient and Medieval Chemotherapy for Cancer,” published 25 years ago, Dr. Riddle asserted that “The modern scientist might employ the history of a drug, especially in the works of the leading medical authorities, as a starting point for conducting animal and clinical tests. Important clues exist in the historical records about which drugs might be worth testing… For too long we have believed that the past was filled with more superstition and stupidities than with experienced judgment about medicine.”2

Dr. McGovern plans to persist in testing ancient beverages to find clues for contemporary medical treatment. “We’re hoping to get an NIH [National Institutes of Health] grant,” said Dr. McGovern, “to continue this research, looking at other parts of the world where humans were also exploring their environment and trying to discover perhaps medicinal compounds that could be dissolved into alcoholic beverages.”

Beverages from Peru, southern France, and Scandinavia have been targeted for future testing, and Dr. McGovern would also like to analyze samples from the Near East.

The researchers would have moved forward with clinical testing of artesunate’s anti-cancer effects; however, according to Dr. McGovern, a team of Germans independently discovered those effects around the same time, and has already commenced clinical trials. “The way that medical people look at it,” said Dr. McGovern, “if someone’s already beat you to that, there’s no reason to do more on that particular compound. We just have to find other compounds that are effective, too.”

— Ashley Lindstrom


1. McGovern P, Christofidou-Solomidou M, et al. Anticancer activity of botanical compounds in ancient fermented beverages (review). Int J Oncol. 2010;37:5

2. Riddle J. Ancient and medieval chemotherapy for cancer. Isis. 1985;76(3):319-330.