Frankincense may be recognized as one of the offerings the Biblical wise men brought to the newborn Jesus, but initial research at the OU Health Sciences Center shows the oil may be a gift for patients with bladder cancer.

H.K. Lin, associate professor of urology, said his research shows frankincense extract kills cancerous cells but leaves bladder cells untouched in controlled laboratory conditions.

Using frankincense as a treatment for cancer is a new idea and still requires a lot of research, Lin said. However, he foresees a future treatment for bladder cancer in which frankincense oil would be administered directly to the bladder via a tube through the urethra.

Graduate research assistant Fadee Mondalek said frankincense is “everywhere” in his home country of Lebanon and is native to the Middle East.

The Boswellia tree contains a hard resin that can be extracted in the form of small pebbles called tears, Mondalek said. Those tears are then distilled, and the result is a clear oil with a pleasant aroma.

Lin said because frankincense is abundant in nature, he cannot seek a patent on this development. He said funding for his research came primarily from OUHSC and Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Oklahoma City.

Lin said he wanted to investigate claims by aroma therapy companies that frankincense could be used to cure cancer.

“The question I had was, ‘You don’t have any proof?’” he said. “It just sounds good in a commercial.”

A 2006 study in Virginia found frankincense oil cured skin cancer in horses, Lin said. It was at that point he decided to see if it would work on bladder cancer because of the similarities with skin cancer.

“Inside the bladder, there is a strong barrier, just like the skin,” he said.

Now that Lin and his team have had some success with frankincense in the lab, they are looking for more researchers to help expand the project. After the lab work, treatments must be tested on lab animals and then primates before they can be tested on humans, much less administered as a standard procedure.

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