Scientists are looking to the natural world for plant-derived compounds that may serve as important treatments for cancers that resist or recur after traditional toxic treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.

A task force comprised of 180 researchers released a list of natural substances today that they say should be studied for possible non-toxic cures for a wide range of persistent cancers.

The substances hone in on 74 high-priority molecular targets that may help fight cancer. Several of the natural substances that hold potential are found in food.  

The researchers from The Tisch Cancer Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York as well as 22 other institutions around the world concluded that natural therapies could eventually supplement or replace more toxic treatments.

They said these newer treatments might be able to reduce the number of cancer relapses as well as significantly reduce the cost of cancer treatments.

Their findings were published today in the journal Seminars in Cancer Biology.

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Toxic Cancer Treatments

In their study, the researchers stated that “many cancer therapies are highly toxic and even when they appear to work, a significant percentage of patients will experience a relapse after only a few months.”

The researchers blame many of the relapses on a small group of mutant cells that are resistant to certain treatments.

They said doctors many times respond by trying a combination of therapies, but the toxicity levels of those treatments usually limits their use and their ability to stop stubborn cancers.

“Our approaches to therapy are improving, but we need a breakthrough that can help us address the problem of relapse,” said Dr. Dean Felsher, a member of the task force from the Department of Medicine at Stanford University, in a statement.

These treatments can also be expensive. The study stated that 11 of the 12 cancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2012 cost more than $100,000 per year per patient.

This financial problem is particularly acute in developing countries where the healthcare systems aren’t as well-funded.

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Solving Things Naturally

The task force tackled the problem by looking at a host of natural substances in foods and plants that could potentially be used as cancer treatments.

They spotlighted the compounds they felt had the best potential and urged research be done on their effectiveness.

Among the substances are resveratrol, lycopene, and some compounds found in potatoes.

“We highlighted which compounds we feel have the greatest potential,” said Dr. Randall Holcombe, a study co-author and deputy director of The Tisch Institute.

Holcombe told Healthline the natural compounds could be used in a number of ways.

Some may be most effective when included in a patient’s diet. Others could be used as ingredients in non-toxic medications.

“The point of this endeavor is to highlight substances and to highlight potential,” Holcombe said. “It’s highlighting a different paradigm.”

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A Variety of Treatments

Holcombe and the other study authors were quick to add that their research is preliminary. They do not advocate using the potential treatments in place of current therapies. At least not yet.

They agree more research is needed and in the future the experimental natural treatments should be used as a supplement to more traditional therapies. They also said they could be attempted with patients who aren’t responding to more common treatments.

Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, said research for non-toxic cancer treatments isn’t anything new.

“It’s always been our goal to have less toxic therapies,” he said.

Lichtenfeld noted that natural substances such as Chinese herbal medicines have already been incorporated into some cancer therapies.

He complimented The Tisch Institute task force for providing some solid background on the biology of cancer and the potential of natural treatments.

He noted the key component will be proving that these natural therapies are effective.

“That’s a large task,” Lichtenfeld told Healthline. “Underlying any discussion has to be the demonstration of efficacy.”

June M. Chan, Sc.D., a professor of epidemiology, biostatistics, and urology at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees.

Chan told Healthline the report is a good overall perspective on possible future treatments.

“It expands our understanding of our own biology,” she said.

Chan noted that lifestyle factors along with new therapies using the human immune system to fight cancer cells are getting more attention.

This week, U.C. San Francisco officials released a report on the effects of diet and exercise on prostate cancer.

The report concluded that men who maintain a healthy weight, don’t smoke, exercise regularly, and eat fish have a 65 percent lower risk of dying from prostate cancer.

“Cancer has ways to evade us on many levels,” said Chan. “It’s going to take a multi-prong approach to defeat it.”

Lichtenfeld agrees.

“We are in a really important revolution,” he said, “but the revolution is going to walk along several paths.”