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Daffodils Contain Potent Alkaloid

You may be surprised to learn that daffodils are not only being admired as lovely harbingers of spring, but also, according to new research, as plants with potent cancer-fighting potential. It turns out daffodils contain a natural alkaloid called haemanthamine (HAE) that inhibits the protein production cancer cells depend on to grow and flourish.

Although daffodils have been used medicinally dating back to the ancient Greeks, this may well be the first time modern scientists have uncovered a molecular explanation for their anticancer properties.1 Daffodils belong to the Amaryllidaceae (also commonly known as Amaryllis) family of plants, which possess not only anticancer properties, but also anticholinesterase, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial and antiviral effects, too.

While this news is intriguing, it's important to mention it is unsafe to eat daffodils because the entire plant is highly toxic. If you swallow any part of it you can expect to experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Rather than risk illness, a safer approach would be to wait for researchers to transform the promising plant extracts into a nontoxic form of anticancer therapy.

Daffodils Contain Powerful Anti-Malignancy Alkaloid

While you probably wouldn't suspect their medicinal properties by looking at them, daffodils (Narcissus) are found within one of about 20 medicinal plant families known for their pharmacologically active compounds. Long enjoyed for their brightly colored petals arrayed in the shape of a star and frilly trumpet-shaped heads, daffodils are now joining the ranks of cancer-fighting plants.

New research published in the journal Structure2 highlights the discovery of a natural extract in daffodils known for its ability to kill cancer cells. Led by molecular biologist Denis Lafontaine from the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium, the research evaluated the anticancer properties of HAE, a natural daffodil alkaloid known to have strong physiological effects in humans.3

The current research, as well as previous efforts by Lafontaine's team and other scientists, has validated HAE's anticancer effects by overcoming the resistance cancer cells have to apoptosis (cell death). Lafontaine and his colleagues suggest HAE activates an "antitumoral surveillance pathway." Because cancer cells require protein synthesis to grow and flourish, requiring the involvement of cell organelles known as ribosomes, HAE acts on the ribosomes, thereby inhibiting protein production.

According to Medical News Today, "The nucleolar stress thus induced triggers a chain reaction that culminates with the elimination of cancer cells: It activates a tumoral surveillance pathway, which stabilizes a protein called p53, which, in turn, leads to cell death." 4 Beyond their anticancer effects, the study authors suggest Amaryllidaceae alkaloids have other beneficial properties.

They said, "Their biological activities are not restricted to anticancer effects but include potential anticholinesterase, antimalarial, antiviral and anti-inflammatory effects."5 Now that these beneficial extracts have been made known, researchers are attempting to identify the most promising of four Amaryllidaceae alkaloids to see which, if any, can be further developed into a useful form of anticancer therapy.6

Research Validates the Potential of HAE and Other Plant Alkaloids

The research out of ULB is but one of several studies involving plant alkaloids and their potentially therapeutic properties with respect to human health. A 2015 study published in Phytochemistry Letters7 evaluated the cell-killing activities of Amaryllidaceae alkaloids against gastrointestinal cancer cells with the intention of identifying potential natural products for use in future anticancer medications.

The study authors said: "In this study, we demonstrated that HAE, haemanthidine and lycorine showed strong cytotoxicity against … colorectal adenocarcinoma cells … our data indicate that alpha-C2 bridged HAE may be a perspective anticancer drug candidate."

A 2017 study8 out of the Czech Republic evaluated the anticancer and antiproliferative potential of 22 Amaryllidaceae alkaloids using a panel of human cell types, real time cellular analysis and lab mice. The results showed HAE, haemanthidine and lycorine as exerting the highest antiproliferative activity.

These three alkaloids also exhibited significant cell-killing abilities against all tested cell lines. Unfortunately, in tests involving Ehrlich tumor-bearing mice, HAE failed to show a statistically significant reduction in tumor size or a lengthening of survival time. About the mixed results, the study authors stated, "Taken together, these results provide a new clue and guidance for exploiting Amaryllidaceae alkaloids as anticancer agents."

Many Medicines Are Based on Plant Compounds

The current research involving daffodils is just one of countless studies focused on the medicinal benefits of plants. Authors of a 2011 study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine had this to say about the usefulness of harnessing the healing power of nature:9

"Almost 70 percent of the prescription and over the counter medicines that are being used for the treatment of many diseases is derived from plants and natural sources.

Pharmacologists, medical doctors, scientists and pharmaceutical companies study the plants and herbs that are traditionally used for treatment of various diseases. After vigorous study, they identify the particular molecule that has therapeutic properties. These molecules undergo various modifications and mutations in laboratories. And then, it is mass produced … and .. marketed."

Beyond HAE, there are several other naturally occurring therapeutic molecules found in the Amaryllidaceae family of plants that have long been used in human health, including:10,11

  • Ephedrine: An anti-asthmatic derived from the Chinese plant known as ma huang, which the Chinese have been using for more than 2,000 years to treat breathing disorders and wheezing; its derivative ephedra has been used as a stimulant for weight loss and appetite suppression
  • Morphine: A potent, highly addictive painkiller derived from the opium poppy that has been used for thousands of years
  • Quinine: An antimalarial agent prized for its fever-reducing abilities that is derived from cinchona bark in Peru; quinine has been used to treat malaria since the 1600s

Don't Eat Daffodils; They Are Poisonous

Given their innocuous looks and ready availability, you may think daffodils are harmless. The reality is the entire plant is toxic and should never be eaten. On some occasions, their unopened tops have been mistaken for garlic chives and their bulbs confused with onions or shallots. (If you are interested in edible plants, check out my article on 42 Flowers You Can Eat.)

Based on an increase in the number of poisonings related to store-bought daffodils in prior years, in 2015 Public Health England issued a warning to all major supermarkets about daffodil toxicity.12 In a letter with the subject heading "Steps to Avoid Daffodil Poisonings This Spring," professor Paul Cosford, director for health protection and medical director for Public Health England, said:13

"Each spring stores such as yours provide a wide selection of flowers, particularly cut daffodils and daffodil bulbs. Unfortunately, there are rare occasions when the bulbs are mistaken for onions, and the stems or leaves are mistaken for a type of vegetable popular in China.

As I'm sure you are aware, daffodils are dangerous if eaten, and poisoning can occur as a result. We are asking you, along with all other major supermarkets, to ensure that daffodils, both the bulbs from which they sprout and the cut variety, too, are displayed well away from the produce or fruit and vegetable area."

Prior to the warning being issued, 63 people had become ill during the recent six years. In 2014, the National Poisons Information Service, a service provided by Public Health England, answered 27 calls about daffodil poisoning.14

According to BBC News, 10 members of Bristol's Chinese community were treated for daffodil poisoning in 2012 after apparently mistaking the green parts of an immature plant for a chive used in Chinese cooking.15 The U.S. National Capital Poison Center cautions against adults, children and pets ingesting daffodils, noting:16

"When swallowed, [daffodils] can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. Eating the bulb can cause severe irritation of the mouth and stomach upset. These symptoms are usually not life threatening and resolve within a few hours."

How to Keep Yourself and Your Loved Ones Safe Around Daffodils

Should you or someone you love experience a mild exposure to daffodils, a good first step is to rinse the mouth well and drink water or milk. For more serious exposures involving persistent vomiting and diarrhea, watch for signs of dehydration.

Seek medical treatment if your contact with daffodils results in intense throat pain, difficulty swallowing or drooling. Registered nurse Serkalem Mekonnen, a certified specialist in poison information at the U.S. National Capital Poison Center, provides the following helpful information about daffodil toxicity:17

  • Lycorine is the toxic chemical present in all parts of the daffodil and its highest concentration is in the bulb
  • The mouth irritation experienced from consuming daffodil bulbs results from chemicals called oxalates,which have been described as "microscopic and needle-like"
  • If you swallow parts of the bulb, you will experience burning and irritation on your lips, tongue and throat; your skin also may become irritated, which is why it is always a good idea to wash your hands after handling and planting daffodil bulbs
  • Animals that have eaten very large amounts of daffodils may suffer from more severe effects, including drowsiness, liver damage and low blood pressure (fortunately, these effects have never been reported in humans)
  • For the safety and well-being of small children and pets, avoid growing or displaying daffodils in areas where they live and play; never leave unplanted bulbs unattended

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