African milk bush causes cancer

Published: Sunday 15 June 2003

Euphorbia tirucalli: cancer-ca children in sub-Saharan Africa not only use the sap of the African milk bush as glue, but they also love to play with it. It is even considered as an excellent source of herbal remedies. But this seemingly benign sap is quite harmful. Scientists have found that it causes one of the most deadly cancers that affect children in the region. Exposure to even tiny amounts of the sap can boost the activity of the Epstein-Barr virus that causes Burkitt's lymphoma -- cancer of the immune system characterised by tumours in the jaw. In sub-Saharan Africa, up to 10 children in every 100,000 suffer from Burkitt's lymphoma as compared to 0.1 cases per 100,000 kids from the Western world.

Epstein-Barr virus is an extremely common microbe. Transmitted through saliva, it sits as a 'quiet passenger' in most people's cells. However, in certain circumstances the virus can kick-start cancer by driving immune cells called b-cells to proliferate rapidly.

In the 1980s, following anecdotal reports, scientists had suggested that the sap might cause lymphoma. To investigate the reports, Rosemary Rochford and Adam MacNeill, virologists at the us-based University of Michigan, recently visited Kenya. "We found that a lot of kids played with the plant. And what do they do with their hands? They put them in their mouths," says Rochford. During their tests, the virologists found that even the diluted sap acts like an on/off switch, activating three genes of the virus that lead to its rapid replication. In other words, it governs how the virus replicates. The findings are important, as many African children suffering from lymphoma die, with no treatment available for them.

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