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This natural plant extract could cure rare brain tumors, study shows

Milk thistle

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(NaturalNews) A chemical extracted from milk thistle seeds may function as a non-invasive treatment for a rare hormonal condition caused by a brain tumor, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich and Helmholtz Zentrum Munchen and published in the journal Nature Medicine on February 9.

The condition, known as Cushing disease (the most common variety of Cushing syndrome), stems from a tumor in the pituitary gland of the brain. This tumor leads to increased levels of the stress hormone adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) in the body, which in turn causes the adrenal glands to release elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. These abnormally high hormone levels produce a variety of health problems, such as rapid weight gain, high blood pressure, muscle weakness, osteoporosis, increased rate of infections, and even depression and cognitive dysfunction.

Symptoms completely disappeared

Currently, the only way to treat 80 to 85 percent of cases of Cushing disease is with brain surgery. In the other 15 to 20 percent of cases, only a single therapy has been approved, and that can cause intense side effects such as elevated blood sugar in more than one-fifth of patients.

The new study found, however, that silibinin extracted from milk thistle seeds successfully treated Cushing's disease in cell cultures, animal models and human tumor tissue.

In search of new therapies for Cushing disease, the researchers first sought a better understanding of the mechanisms by which a pituitary tumor can cause ACTH levels to surge.

"We knew that Cushing Disease is caused by the release of too much ACTH. So we asked ourselves what causes this over production and how to stop it," lead researcher Marcelo Paez-Pereda said.

The researchers found that Cushing disease tumors contain incredibly high levels of a protein known as heat shock protein 90 (HSP90), which is responsible for folding glucocorticoid receptors and thus inhibiting ACTH production.

"As there are too many HSP90 molecules in the tumor tissue, they stick to the glucocorticoid receptor," Paez-Pereda said. "We found that silibinin binds to HSP90 thus allowing glucocorticoid receptor molecules to dissolve from HSP90."

The study showed that silibinin treatment caused Cushing disease tumors to slow their growth and return to normal levels of ACTH production. In live mice, silibinin treatment actually caused all disease symptoms to disappear.

Clinical trials pending

Paez-Pereda emphasized that silibinin and milk thistle are already known to be safe in humans, and are used as alternative therapies for various diseases.

"Silibinin is the major active constituent of milk thistle seeds," he said. "It has an outstanding safety profile in humans and is already used for the treatment of liver disease and poisoning."

Researchers from the Max Planck institute have already filed a patent for a variety of chemicals that may be used to treat pituitary tumors, including silibinin. They are now planning clinical trials of the substance in humans with Cushing disease.

"With silibinin we might have discovered a non-invasive treatment strategy not only for the rare Cushing Disease but also for other conditions with the involvement of glucocorticoid receptors such as lung tumors, acute lymphoblastic leukemia or multiple myeloma," Paez-Pereda said.

Silibinin might also have applications for veterinary medicine. While Cushing disease is very rare in humans, with a rate of only about 5.5 per 100,000, it is quite common in various animals. As many as 4 percent of dogs and 7 percent of horses suffer from the disease.

Milk thistle has been used as a traditional medicine for more than 2,000 years, particularly for liver and gall bladder problems.

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