United Arab Emirates UniversityIdentifying molecular targets of manuka honey-mediated inhibition of human cancers

Identifying molecular targets of manuka honey-mediated inhibition of human cancers


Researchers at UAEU are hopeful that its natural properties can help to make treatment safer and more effective

The first time Basel Al-Ramadi’s colleagues suggested to him, an immunologist, that he investigate the healing properties of manuka honey on cancerous tumours, he laughed them off. “I said to them, you cannot be serious – I’m not wasting my time with this,” he recalls.

Within just a few months, however, the professor admits that his entire viewpoint had changed, following the groundbreaking research undertaken with his team at United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) identifying the ingredient as a significant cancer-fighting agent.

“The decision that we made at the time was to try to administer the honey through an intravenous route – that was unprecedented,” he explains. “We started with the premise that we would use honey in a therapeutic model, meaning that we could implant the tumour first, wait for it to grow and then start the treatment – something akin to what will happen with patients.”

The team began their investigation using different cancer cell lines, culturing them with manuka honey to see what effect it had on them. “We found evidence that manuka honey actually kills these cancer cells at low concentrations, which encouraged us to test them in vivo,” says Professor Al-Ramadi.

In one experiment, the researchers injected a common chemotherapy drug into mice on its own. In another treatment arm, manuka honey was injected, and in the third arm the honey and chemotherapy were injected together.

“The results were shocking,” says Professor Al-Ramadi. “We determined that even the administration of manuka honey on its own could reduce the tumour’s growth by 25 to 30 per cent. More importantly, the combined treatment was not only very effective, but it improved the survival rate for the animals overall on account of the fact that the toxicities typically associated with the cancer drugs were reduced.”

This discovery could have dramatic effects on improving the safety of and reducing the trauma associated with cancer treatments in the future, he explains.

Professor Al-Ramadi’s team at UAEU successfully applied for a patent from the US, and went on to conduct further investigations into the specific cellular targets of the manuka honey in reducing cancer spread. A resulting paper published in 2017 details how the active properties in manuka honey effectively act as a barrier to stop the autonomous growth of cancer cells.

“I went from being a sceptic to someone who believes in the usefulness of proving this concept and utilising it to enhance cancer treatment and prevention,” says Professor Al-Ramadi.

Originally from Jerusalem, Professor Al-Ramadi joined UAEU in 1997 after studying at the universities of Edinburgh and Yale. “It was the emphasis on research that attracted me to UAEU,” he says. “The university was small but well organised.”

Today, he heads the Laboratory of Immunology at UAEU’s College of Medicine and Health Sciences, where he and colleagues are pursuing further investigations into the link between manuka honey and reducing cancer growth. His laboratory has a number of collaborations with researchers in Brazil, Italy, the US and China, and it is Professor Al-Ramadi’s ambition to expand future partnerships with local industry and government agencies.

UAEU still relies on importing almost all its laboratory chemicals and equipment, and this can present “challenges”, he says, “but what delights me is seeing how things have progressed over the past 20 years. I for one am proud of the reputation that we’ve built, putting UAE on the map as a place for globally competitive research. We are working with first-class scientists all over the world to have collaborative projects, the fruits of which are yet to be published.”

Looking to the future, he hopes to expand the research community’s understanding of the potential for natural substances such as manuka honey to act as a preventive power against cancers. “When cancer grows, it is at the expense of the immune system,” he explains. “I am a strong believer that if the immune system is functionally intact, this is what keeps the cancer at bay.”

“Imagine if I could tell you I’ve found a way for you to take chemotherapy but make it safer without side-effects. It would be fantastic,” Professor Al-Ramadi says. “I believe that with continued study we will find that natural remedies can complement medical drugs very effectively – the future is very bright, and I am very hopeful.”

Read “Therapeutic and preventive properties of honey and its bioactive compounds in cancer: an evidence-based review”, published in Nutrition Research Reviews, to find out more about UAEU’s work researching manuka honey as a cancer treatment.

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