As far back as the 1950s, scientists discovered that the traditional herbal remedy, the Madagascar periwinkle (Vinca rosea or Catharanthus roseus) contained medicinally active ‘vinca alkaloids’, among which were the first phytochemicals used to treat cancer.

C. roseus has gained interest from the pharmaceutical industry; the alkaloids vincristine and vinblastine from its sap have been shown to be an effective treatment for leukaemia and lymphoma. Although the sap is poisonous if ingested, some 70 useful alkaloids have been identified from it including alstonine, ajmalicine, reserpine, vincamin, camptothecin, vinblastine, and vincristine (leurocrystine), all possessing powerful medicinal properties. Vinblastine, vincristine and other semi-synthetic derivatives inhibit division of cancer cells and are commonly used in conventional chemotherapy, exhibiting the usual range of chemotherapy side effects. All are extremely toxic. Vinblastine is used to treat Hodgkin’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and testicular and kidney cancer. Vincristine is usually given in combination with other anti-cancer agents to treat acute lymphocytic leukaemia, lymphoma, neuroblastoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, Wilm’s tumour, Ewing’s sarcoma, and cancers of the breast, cervix, bladder and lungs.

In Madagascar, extracts have been used for hundreds of years in herbal medicine for the treatment of diabetes, as hemostatics and tranquilizers, to lower blood pressure, and as disinfectants. The extracts are not without their side effects, however, which include hair loss.

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The most important plant source of materials used in chemotherapy are the alkaloids of the Madagascar Periwinkle. Research was stimulated by its traditional use in the treatment of diabetes. No hypoglycaemic activity was detected, but the susceptibility to bacterial infection in the treated test animals led the researchers to look for possible immunosuppressive effects. Alkaloids with anti-leukemic activity were found, and vincaleukoblastine(vinblastine) and leurocristine (vincristine), are now used, either alone, or in combination with other forms of therapy for cancer treatment.

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