The neem tree known in folklore as a pharmacy by itself for its multipurpose utility as pest control to the alternative toothbrush, has gone under the microscope in the laboratories of the Annamalai University where scientists are testing its curative properties against cancer.
By its Persian name, the neem translates as the Free Tree. Sanskrit texts as old as 2,000 years ago, recorded the benefits of neem bark, seed, oil, flowers and almost each part of the tree (a native to India) to fight illnesses.
In Europe, Japan and India, scientists are closely studying the neem for its properties to control and reduce cancerous tumours.
Now S Nagini (46) a professor of biochemistry at the Annamalai University, claims to have made headway in the drought-resistant neem’s armour against cancer.
“When anyone in our family suffered chicken pox my grandmother would tie neem branches all over the house to prevent anyone getting infected,” recalled Nagini. “It used to work unfailingly. We are retracing the knowledge of our forefathers.”
Nagini extracts and refines the neem’s phytochemicals (natural plant nutrients or chemicals) to study their preventive and combative properties against commonly occurring cancers in south India — oral, stomach and breast.
“Neem has shown multi-functional inhibitory effects against cancer cells,” said Nagini. “It inhibits creation of new blood vessels in cancer cells and induces self-destruction of mutated cancerous cells.”
The research — so far on animal experiments and funded by the department of science and technology in Delhi — also indicates that neem can help the body’s defence mechanism to distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells.
Nagini’s laboratory experiments can be compared to a salad bowl. She has found that a cocktail of extracts from the tomato, garlic and turmeric can also be effective to prevent cancer.