12/21/2012 02:32 pm ET

Mistletoe Could Help Fight Colon Cancer, Study Finds

Mistletoe may have a use beyond facilitating holiday romance -- it could also play a role in the fight against cancer.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide found that mistletoe extract is effective in killing colon cancer cells in a lab setting, and seemed to have an even more potent effect on the cells compared with chemotherapy (all while not being as harsh on healthy cells as the chemotherapy).

"This is an important result because we know that chemotherapy is effective at killing healthy cells as well as cancer cells. This can result in severe side effects for the patient, such as oral mucositis (ulcers in the mouth) and hair loss," study researcher Zahra Lotfollahi said in a statement.

For the study, which was completed as part of Lotfollahi's honors research project at the university and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, Lotfollahi tried applying different kinds of mistletoe extracts to colon cancer cells. Extract from the Fraxini species of mistletoe seemed to be most effective in the experiment (this species of mistletoe grows on ash trees).

"Our laboratory studies have shown Fraxini mistletoe extract by itself to be highly effective at reducing the viability of colon cancer cells," she said in the statement. "At certain concentrations, Fraxini also increased the potency of chemotherapy against the cancer cells."

Mistletoe cancer research is generally still incomplete, though some trials have shown a benefit for some people with certain cancers. The National Cancer Institute reported that the results of a trial testing the effect of mistletoe in non-small cell lung cancer patients is still begin analyzed. And while past studies have shown some kind of benefit of mistletoe on cancer patients, some of the studies had weaknesses.