Posted by: lifeinlonsdale | February 13, 2010

Just out from: BBC News “Frankincense – a cure for cancer? “

The gift given by the wise men to the baby Jesus probably
came across the deserts from Oman. The BBC’s Jeremy Howell
visits the country to ask whether a commodity that was once
worth its weight in gold could be reborn as a treatment for

Oman’s Land of Frankincense is an 11-hour drive southwards
from the capital, Muscat.

Most of the journey is through Arabia’s Empty Quarter –
hundreds of kilometres of flat, dun-coloured desert. Just
when you are starting to think this is the only scenery you
will ever see again, the Dhofar mountains appear in the

On the other side are green valleys, with cows grazing in
them. The Dhofar region catches the tail-end of India’s
summer monsoons, and they make this the most verdant place
on the Arabian peninsula.

Warm winters and showery summers are the perfect conditions
for the Boswellia sacra tree to produce the sap called
frankincense. These trees grow wild in Dhofar. A tour guide,
Mohammed Al-Shahri took me to Wadi Dawkah, a valley 20 km
inland from the main city of Salalah, to see a forest of

“The records show that frankincense was produced here as far
back as 7,000 BCE,” he says. He produces an army knife. He
used to be a member of the Sultan’s Special Forces. With a
practised flick, he cuts a strip of bark from the trunk of
one of the Boswellia sacra trees. Pinpricks of milky-white
sap appear on the wood and, very slowly, start to ooze out.

“This is the first cut. But you don’t gather this sap,” he
says. “It releases whatever impurities are in the wood. The
farmers return after two or three weeks and make a second,
and a third, cut. Then the sap comes out yellow, or bright
green, or brown or even black. They take this.”

Shortly afterwards, a frankincense farmer arrives in a
pick-up truck. He is white-bearded, wearing a brown thobe
and the traditional Omani, paisley-patterned turban.

He is 67-year-old Salem Mohammed from the Gidad family. Most
of the Boswellia sacra trees grow on public land, but custom
dictates that each forest is given to one of the local
families to farm, and Wadi Dawkah is his turf.

Camel train

He has an old, black, iron chisel with which he gouges out
clumps of dried frankincense.

“We learnt about frankincense from our forefathers and they
learnt it from theirs” he says. “The practice has been
passed down through the generations. We exported the
frankincense, and that’s how the families in Dhofar made
their livings.”

And what an export trade it was. Frankincense was sent by
camel train to Egypt, and from there to Europe. It was
shipped from the ancient port of Sumharan to Persia, India
and China. Religions adopted frankincense as a burnt

That is why, according to Matthew’s Gospel in the Bible, the
Wise Men brought it as a gift to the infant Jesus. Gold: for
a king. Frankincense: for God. Myrrh: to embalm Jesus’ body
after death.

The Roman Empire coveted the frankincense trade. In the
first century BCE, Augustus Caesar sent 10,000 troops to
invade what the Romans called Arabia Felix to find the
source of frankincense and to control its production. The
legions, marching from Yemen, were driven back by the heat
and the aridity of the desert. They never found their

Oman’s frankincense trade went into decline three centuries
ago, when Portugal fought Oman for dominance of the sea
routes in the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.

Nowadays, hardly any Omani frankincense is exported. Partly,
this is because bulk buyers, such as the Roman Catholic
Church, buy cheaper Somalian varieties. Partly, it is
because Omanis now produce so little.

“Years ago, 20 families farmed frankincense in this area,”
says Salem Mohammed Gidad. “But the younger generation can
get well-paid jobs in the government and the oil companies,
with pensions. Now, only three people still produce
frankincense around here. The trade is really, really tiny!”

Cancer hope

But immunologist Mahmoud Suhail is hoping to open a new
chapter in the history of frankincense.

Scientists have observed that there is some agent within
frankincense which stops cancer spreading, and which induces
cancerous cells to close themselves down. He is trying to
find out what this is.

“Cancer starts when the DNA code within the cell’s nucleus
becomes corrupted,” he says. “It seems frankincense has a
re-set function. It can tell the cell what the right DNA
code should be.

“Frankincense separates the ‘brain’ of the cancerous cell –
the nucleus – from the ‘body’ – the cytoplasm, and closes
down the nucleus to stop it reproducing corrupted DNA

Working with frankincense could revolutionise the treatment
of cancer. Currently, with chemotherapy, doctors blast the
area around a tumour to kill the cancer, but that also kills
healthy cells, and weakens the patient. Treatment with
frankincense could eradicate the cancerous cells alone and
let the others live.

The task now is to isolate the agent within frankincense
which, apparently, works this wonder. Some ingredients of
frankincense are allergenic, so you cannot give a patient
the whole thing.

Boswellia sacra grows in Oman, Yemen and Somalia
Other Boswellia species grow in Africa and India
The tree may have been named after John Boswell, the uncle
of Samuel Johnson’s biographer
In ancient Egypt frankincense was thought to be sweat of the
gods Source: The Pharmaceutical Journal
Dr Suhail (who is originally from Iraq) has teamed up with
medical scientists from the University of Oklahoma for the

In his laboratory in Salalah, he extracts the essential oil
from locally produced frankincense. Then, he separates the
oil into its constituent agents, such as Boswellic acid.

“There are 17 active agents in frankincense essential oil,”
says Dr Suhail. “We are using a process of elimination. We
have cancer sufferers – for example, a horse in South Africa
– and we are giving them tiny doses of each agent until we
find the one which works.”

“Some scientists think Boswellic acid is the key ingredient.
But I think this is wrong. Many other essential oils – like
oil from sandalwood – contain Boswellic acid, but they don’t
have this effect on cancer cells. So we are starting

The trials will take months to conduct and whatever results
come out of them will take longer still to be verified. But
this is a blink of the eye in the history of frankincense.

Nine thousand years ago, Omanis gathered it and burnt it for
its curative and cleansing properties. It could be a key to
the medical science of tomorrow.

Jeremy Howell reports for

on BBC World News.
Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2010/02/09 10:59:45 GMT


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