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Catharanthus Roseus: An Anti-Cancer Plant

It is one of the well-known medicinal plants that has its origin from the continent of Africa.
The plant is commonly known as the Madagascar periwinkle or basically Vinca Rosea. It is a tender, perennial plant, which grows as a herb or subshrub sprawling along the ground or standing erect, growing to approximately 1 metre in height.

Leaves simple, petiolate and opposite with greenish-glossy appearance. Flowers are commonly white or pink comprising of five petals spreading from a long, tubular throat. However, different cultivars produce different colour shades of flowers including one which has a unique reddish-orange colour. Each fruit is made up of two narrow, cylindrical follicles containing numerous grooved seeds. The plant grows well on limestone and sandy soils especially in grassland, woodland or forests.

The extensive use of Catharanthus roseus in traditional medicine across the world can be traced way back to Madagascar where it has been used for centauries to tackle a number of diseases and disorders including treatment and management of leukaemia, diabetes, sore throat, malaria, eye irritation, wasp stings and microbial infections. It is frequently used as an expectorant, astringent or as a diuretic agent. Its use as bitter tonic, galactogogue, and emetic is also common in traditional medicine. In fact, the plant has over the years received worldwide recognition due to its exceptional medicinal benefits.

A cross African continent, the plant leaf decoction is used in traditional medicine as a remedy for treatment and management of diabetes and as well as treatment of malaria. The traditional healers topically administer the powdered leaves as poultice for treating inflammation and pain in the joints.

The leaves infusion is used to control heavy bleeding at menstruation and stomach cramps. The leaves decoction is also orally administered to induce vomiting under some circumstances. The boiled leaves extract is applied on the affected areas on the skin to neutralise insect stings which may include wasp’s sting, bee’s sting among others. The leaf decoction is also administered orally by traditional healers as treatment for indigestion and constipation.

Apart from use of the leaves, the roots of the plant are also highly exploited for its medicinal values. For instance, the root decoction has for many years been used as a laxative, as a hemostatic agent and for stopping toothache. In addition, the root decoction is also used for treating intestinal parasites and dysentery.

There has also been reported use of Catharanthus roseus plant in treating and managing of hypertension and insomnia. Furthermore, the plant is decocted and gargled for easing sore throats and laryngitis as well as for treatment of chest related ailments. In addition, the decoction from the entire plant is used for treatment of tuberculosis and for the management and treatment of high blood pressure. In some communities, the traditional health practitioners use the decoction from flowers for treating flatulence and asthma conditions. The boiled mixture of the leaves and flowers is also orally administered for treatment and management of diabetes.

The milky sap from the shoot of the plant is applied to heal wounds. Catharanthus roseus herb is also used to treat acne as well as in tackling eczema and other swellings that can develop on the skin. Indeed, the plant is used to effectively cure a number of skin diseases and disorders. The plant is also known to be used in the treatment of nose bleeding and gum inflammation. The decoction from the leaves is orally administered for piles treatment.

Apart from its highly valuable medicinal application, Catharanthus roseus is one of the plants with very colourful and attractive flowers and thus grown in many homes as an ornamental to add beauty to the environment.

The interest in Catharanthus roseus species arises from its therapeutic roles and it is uniquely important due to the fact that it’s the only source of the anticancer alkaloids vincristine and vinblastine, whose complexity renders them difficult to be synthesized in the laboratory. Other biologically active compounds in the plant are serpentine, catharanthine, ajmalicine, akuammine, lochnerine, lochnericine, and tetrahydroalstonine, vincristine and vinblastine. These active substances are anti-carcinogen, anti-oxidative, hypoglycaemic, anti-allergic and antibiotic in nature thus essential for the healthy functioning of the body. In fact, the cancer-fighting effects of this plant are attributed to the presence of vincristine and vinblastine found in it.

Due to its unique importance, there has been increasing desire to protect the plant. Consequently, Catharanthus roseus is now one of the plants listed as an endangered plant in the Red List of Threatened Species of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources due to the declining population of the plant. The plant to date remains one of the most potent plants that offers medicinal supports to tackle several ailments that tend to pose dangers to human beings and with more research, the medicinal potential of this plant can be fully exploited for the treatment of many human diseases in the near future.

– Richard Komakech