IT IS a European Christmas tradition, and an annual excuse for a stolen kiss.
But University of Canberra researchers are investigating how mistletoe can be used to improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments and give sufferers better quality of life.
Associate Professor of biomedical sciences Luby Simson said research showed the plant itself contained active molecules that helped stimulate immune system in preparedness to get rid of the cancer cell or directly attacked the cancer cell itself, and a toxin in mistletoe berries contributed to the effectiveness of mistletoe treatments.
Dr Simson said mistletoe extract was used in Europe as a complementary cancer treatment, but was not widely offered to Australian patients.
She and doctorate scholar Bilquis Ara are working with a German pharmaceutical manufacturer ABNOBA on improving the delivery of mistletoe treatment by enclosing it in fatty liposome capsules rather than injecting the extract directly into the muscle of the patient.
Liposome is commonly used to deliver other cancer treatments, and works to disguise its content from the immune system until it reaches the cancer cell and is released.
"The trick here is that when it gets to the cancer cell, you actually want the payload to be released and stimulate the immune system, but you want it to be stimulated specifically in the area of the cancer cell," she said.
Dr Simson said overseas cancer patients who had received mistletoe treatments also reported feeling generally better.
"You actually ask the patients, well how are you feeling today, and generally their wellness state is improved, and that's even in cases when the actual efficacy of treatment isn't necessarily better but the patient feels better while on the treatment," she said.
Mistletoe treatments are only offered in Australia to end stage clinical patients.
Dr Simson would like to see the treatment fully validated in Australia and then put through approval procedures to comply with local regulations, and made more widely available to cancer patients.
Dr Simson noted in Europe some patients were choosing to use mistletoe treatments instead of chemotherapy.