Can frankincense really fight cancer?

Behind the Headlines

Monday December 23 2013

Could frankincense - the gift for the baby Jesus - be a cancer cure?

This frankincense news was a gift from wise press officers

“Frankincense ‘fights cancer’,” is the festive health headline from the Mail Online. The “aromatic substance from the Nativity story could help treat ovarian tumours,” it says.

The news is based on a University of Leicester press release entitled “Christmas gift brings treatment hope for cancer patients”. Unfortunately, many more Christmases are likely to pass before anyone is treated with frankincense for ovarian cancer.

This is because the news is based on positive early findings from research carried out on the AKBA compound found in frankincense and ovarian cancer cells in a lab.

Healthy gifts?

While the use of frankincense as a cancer cure may still be a long way off, you may be surprised to learn that all three of Jesus’ nativity gifts have been explored for their medical properties.


Myrrh – another resinous compound – has apparently been tested for anti-inflammatory properties, but is not a recommended treatment.


More surprisingly, perhaps, injections of a gold compound can be used to treat rheumatoid arthritis.

The press release says the researchers have been able to show the ability of the compound to combat cancer cells in late-stage ovarian cancer.

This is festive news, and the press team at the University of Leicester should be congratulated for their ingenuity. However, limited conclusions can be drawn from the preliminary findings of this laboratory study as it is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. And some of the claims should not be taken at face value; in particular the press release’s claim that frankincense has no known side effects. Such claims would need rigorous scientific evaluation before they could be verified.

This research is still at a very early stage and as the press release points out, frankincense is yet to be studied for the treatment of ovarian cancer in humans.


What is ovarian cancer?

Ovarian cancer affects more than 6,500 women in the UK each year and is the fifth most common cancer among women. As the symptoms of ovarian cancer can be similar to those of other conditions, it can be difficult to recognise, particularly in the early stages of the disease. However, there are early symptoms to look out for, such as persistent bloating, pain in the pelvis and lower stomach, and difficulty eating.


Why is this in the news?

The story is based on a press release from the University of Leicester about the findings of a study carried out by researchers from the University. The researchers looked at a compound derived from frankincense called acetyl-11-keto-beta-boswellic acid (AKBA) and ovarian cancer cells.

The study has not yet been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal, so the findings reported should be treated with caution. With only the press release available it is not possible to fully appraise the design and methods of this study.

The study appears to have been carried out in the laboratory for about a year and was funded by the Omani government. No other study methods are provided.

It is possible that the press release is being issued now because of the link between frankincense and Christmas.


What is frankincense?

Frankincense is a fragrant plant resin that comes from the Boswelllia sacra tree found across Africa and the Arabian peninsula, including Yemen and Oman. It is one of the famous gifts said to have been given by the Wise Men when they visited newborn Jesus.

Frankincense has been used as a folk medicine for centuries due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Previous studies have linked the AKBA compound as a potential treatment for other cancers as well as osteoarthritis.


What are the reported study findings?

In the press release and accompanying audio interview, Dr Mark Evans from the University of Leicester, who supervised the research, says: “We have shown that this frankincense compound is effective at killing ovarian cancer cells at realistic concentrations.

“What has been most surprising is that the cells we have tested which are resistant to chemotherapy have shown to be more sensitive to this compound, suggesting frankincense may indeed be able to help overcome drug resistance, and lead to an improved survival rate for patients with late-stage ovarian cancer”.



Very little can be said, based on the preliminary and unverified findings of this laboratory study. The study is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and until this happens, it is worth exercising a little healthy scepticism about the claims being made and the time of year they are being made in. This research is still at a very early stage and as the press release points out, frankincense is yet to be studied for the treatment of ovarian cancer in humans.

The findings of this preliminary research do not affect the current methods for treating ovarian cancer.


Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Frankincense 'fights cancer': Aromatic substance from the Nativity story could help treat ovarian tumours. Daily Mail. December 20 2013

Further reading

Press release

University of Leicester. Christmas gift brings treatment hope for cancer patients. Published December 20 2013


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