The generic name Rauwolfia, commemorates a 16th century German physician, Leonhart Rauvolf, who travelled widely to collect medicinal plants. The specific epithet vomitoria refers to the purgative and emetic properties of the bark.
Rauwolfia vomitoria belongs to the family apocynacea. It is a shrub or small tree up to 8 m. The parts that are commonly used for herbal remedies are roots, root bark, leaves and stem-bark. Roots may be harvested non-destructively annually by cutting them 10 cm from the taproot, allowing for fair-trade commercialization of this traditional remedy.
Modern science has studied the phytochemical constituents of Rauvolfia since the middle of the 20th century. The main alkaloid present in Rauwolfia is called reserpine and was first discovered by Swiss scientists, Schiller and Muller of CIB Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland in 1952. Reserpine is commonly used as a marker to identify Rauwolfia.
Reserpine, according to Okpako (1991), is a major constituent of antihypertensive drugs. Taken orally, Reserpine tablets treat the symptoms of high blood pressure (1) and psychotic illnesses such as schizophrenia. Reserpine lowers blood pressure by lowering certain chemicals in the blood stream, relaxing and widening the blood vessels. Potentially serious side effects of this medication include uncontrollable movement of the legs, arms, or hands, an irregular heartbeat, or heart failure (2). Symptoms of heart failure include a sudden weight gain of at least five pounds (2.3 kilograms), chest pain, or swelling in the legs and ankles.
Mirko Beljanski, PhD. and Rauwolfia Vomitoria
Mirko Beljanski (1923-1998) a biochemist and biologist, who spent his professional career at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, studying the causes and mechanisms of gene activation, cell division and tissue development in both normal and malignant states, created a test, the “Oncotest”, which allowed him to identify the carcinogenic potential of different molecules often present in our daily surroundings (3).
Using his Oncotest, he focused on a secondary alkaloid present in Rauwolfia vomitoria: alstonine, which has been isolated and studied since 1952 (4). Beljanski perfected a Rauwolfia vomitoria extract standardized in alstonine, but devoid of reserpine. Beljanski noted that once reserpine was removed from the Rauwolfia extract, the extract had very low toxicity, no hypertensive effect, but a selective effect on cancer cells (5). Alstonine is so specific to cancerous cells that Beljanski used it as a diagnostic agent designed for selective detection of tumors in cytogenetic. The diagnostic agent has application in preoperative and postoperative diagnoses. Beljanski’s invention was recognized and patented (6).
More recent research has emphasized the anticancer activity of Rauwolfia Vomitoria on prostate and ovarian cell lines.
At Columbia University, mice xenografted with LNCaP (prostate cancer) cells were treated with the extract or placebo control, and tumor growth was measured for 5 weeks. Tumor volumes were decreased by 60%, 70% and 58% in the groups fed the 75, 37.5 or 7.5 mg/kg Rauwolfia, respectively (Kruskal-Wallis test, p<0.001). The Rauwolfia vomitoria extract significantly suppressed the growth and cell cycle progression of LNCaP cells, in vitro and in vivo (7).
At Kansas University Medical Center, this specific extract of Rauwolfia vomitoria was also shown to be effective against ovarian cancer cells both alone and in combination with carboplatin. The combination decreased tumor size in animal experiments by 87 to 90%. These dramatic results indicate that in the presence of Rauwolfia, drug resistance of the tumor cells is overcome and the activity of carboplatin is restored. The authors conclude that, “Rauwolfia vomitoria has potent anti-tumor activity and in combination significantly enhances the effect of carboplatin against ovarian cancer.” (8)
(3) Bader, F. (1952) Isolation of alstonine from African species of Rauwolfia. Helvetica Chim Acta: 271-276
(4) M. BELJANSKI: “Oncotest: dépistage des potentiels cancérogènes et spécifiquement anti-cancéreux. Conceptions et perspectives nouvelles en cancérologie“. Environnement et nouvelle médecine. n°2, 1982, pp. 18-23.
(5) M. BELJANSKI, S. CROCHET “The selective anticancer agents PB-100 and BG-8 are active against human melanoma cells, but do not affect non malignant fibroblasts”. International Journal of Oncology 8:1143-1148, 1996.
(6) “Cytodiagnostic method using alstonine as a selective marker, and diagnostic kit containing marker”, patent US 5567593 A
(7) “Anti-prostate cancer activity of B-carboline alkaloid enriched extract from Rauwolfia vomitoria” by D.L. Bemis, J.L. Capodice, P. Gorroochurn, A.E. Katz and R. Buttyan – International Journal of Oncology 29: 1065-1073- July 2006 –
(8) “Antitumor Activities of Rauwolfia Vomitoria Extract and Potentiation of Carboplatin Effects Against Ovarian Cancer” Jun Yu, PhD, Yan Ma, PhD, Jeanne Drisko, MD, Qi Chen, PhD. -November 2013