TKIs (tyrosine kinase inhibitors) such as Gleevec, Sprycel, Tasigna and Bosulif have been shown to be highly effective in blocking the leukemia signals that drive the proliferation of white blood cells (WBC) in CML.
However, these medications have limited effect on the leukemic stem cells residing in the bone marrow. These stem cells are akin to smouldering embers, which can re-ignite the fire that TKIs have put out. So researchers are investigating a wide range of compounds that can selectively kill off leukemic stem cells and eradicate CML.
One of the seemingly improbable candidates is a type of honey produced by wild honey bees in Malaysia. Tualang honey is produced from the Tualang tree found in the rain forests of Malaysia, Thailand, Sumatra and Borneo. The unusual source of pollen results in a dark brown honey with a chemical composition that is different from more conventional types of honey.
Tualang honey has been shown to have a number of potential applications in medicine. It has antibacterial effects, most notably against organisms that infect burn patients, so it has been tested as a wound dressing (Nasir and colleagues. BMC Complement Altern Med 2010;10:31; Nasir and colleagues. BMC Complement Altern Med 2009;9:34).
Laboratory studies have also shown that Tualang honey has activity against breast and ovarian cancer cells (Fauzi and colleagues. Food Chem Toxicol 2011;49:871-878), and can boost the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs such as tamoxifen (Yaacob and colleagues. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med 2013;2013:989841).
A new study has now reported that Tualang honey has activity against leukemic stem cells (Nik Man and colleagues. Biomed Res Int 2015;2015:307094). Leukemia cells (called K562, originally derived from a woman with CML) were grown in the lab and different concentrations of Tualang honey were tested. The honey promoted the self-destruction (called apoptosis) of the leukemia cells, but appeared to leave healthy cells intact. How it accomplishes this isn’t clear but may have to do with the honey’s antioxidant properties.
It’s a long way from the lab to a living person and these results are very preliminary. So it’s too early to advocate consuming honey as a cure-all. But the study does illustrate the wide-ranging search and research for compounds that can kill leukemia cells, and which might be used in the future along with TKIs to eradicate CML.