Have you heard the one about the wise men, the first Christmas presents and cancer?

research Dec 23, 2018

Christmas has snuck up on me this year rather more quickly than I was prepared for! I’ve had my head buried in course-creation (and I’m very nearly there with all the recording – on track to finish by December 31st!!) and I’m only just now beginning to turn my attention to 2019 and all that it holds for Essential Cancer Education, but I’ll tell you more about that next week.

This week, however, I want to reflect on something that only really occurred to me recently as I was writing the content for the lesson on complementary and alternative medicine for the program. And that’s the idea that perhaps the wise men knew more than we realise about the power of the gifts they brought to the new-born king.

We all know the story of the wise men – or Magi – who travelled from the east to visit the new-born baby Jesus, the Son of God, in Bethlehem. Incidentally, there is no mention of how many Magi there were, but tradition assumes there were three since three gifts were brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It seems an obscure combination at first glance – gold is valuable, but why on earth would they give frankincense and myrrh? Well, according to many accounts, frankincense (a perfume) and myrrh (an anointing oil) were actually more valuable than gold at that time. There may be symbolic reasons behind the giving of these particular gifts: gold symbolizes kingship on earth; frankincense symbolizes deity; and myrrh symbolizes death. “Gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God.” (Taken from Contra Celsum, Book I, Chapter 60).

However, what really interested me was the fact that both frankincense and myrrh have potential anti-cancer properties. In fact, some other accounts suggest that the gold was not the precious metal that we all think of, but rather turmeric or curcumin, which also has anti-cancer properties!

These “wise men”, or Magi, were healers in their time. Did they know something, some 2000 years ago, that we only “discovered” in the 20thcentury?


Let’s take a closer look at how frankincense and myrrh exert their anti-cancer effects.


Frankincense is derived from the sap of trees from the Boswellia genus, and extracts from Boswellia (frankincense) have tumor killing properties: it causes cancer cells to commit suicide (a phenomenon called “apoptosis”). But how does it do this? Well, there are a few different mechanisms involved, but one of them works by activating a cascade of events inside the cell involving specialized proteins called caspases, which are proteases that have the ability to “cut” other proteins. As one caspase “cuts” another, this triggers the next one in the cascade to “cut” the next one, and so on down the pathway, eventually causing the cell to die by destroying various structures and organelles inside the cell.

The active ingredient (boswellic acid) also has anti-inflammatory properties, and so this might also provide another anti-cancer mechanism.

However, before we get too excited, a lot of these studies have been done in vitro(in the lab in dishes of cells). Before this could become a mainstream medicine, large-cohort randomized controlled trials (RCTs) are needed.


Commophora, or myrrh, has been used in ancient medicines such as Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine for centuries. However, the medicinal properties of myrrh have only been looked at properly since the 1960s, when the anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory activities were reported. In fact, both frankincense and myrrh have anti-inflammatory properties. Extracts from both plants have been shown to block the activation of a particular signaling pathway called nuclear factor kappa B (NF-kB), which is well known as a pro-inflammatory molecule.

Myrrh can also block cell growth by inhibiting the activity of master regulators of the cell cycle, and it can also reduce the metastatic abilities of cancer cells in vitro

Again, it’s a long way between discovering a compound that does something to cancer cells in vitroand using that compound in a patient – this “bench to bedside” pathway can take YEARS (not to mention $ millions!), but it’s promising to think that something as old as time may one day provide some answers in our quest to beat cancer. 

Christmas wishes

Regardless of your traditions or your beliefs, I wish you all a very happy and peaceful time this Christmas, and as you look ahead to 2019, I hope that the year ahead brings you all you hope for.

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