Tea tree oil may be used in future as a fast, cheap, safe and effective treatment for non-melanoma skin cancers and pre-cancerous lesions, according to UWA researchers.
A three-year study by the Tea Tree Oil Research Group has found solid tumours grown under the skin in mice and treated with a tea tree oil formulation are inhibited in growth and regress within a day of treatment. Within three days the tumours cannot be detected.
The study was undertaken by research associates Dr Sara Greay and Dr Demelza Ireland, from the School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences, and colleagues. It was published online in the journal Cancer Chemotherapy Pharmacology.
The study was carried out in collaboration with Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) and Novasel Pty. Ltd. Dr Greay said further experiments indicated the anti-cancer effect of the tea tree oil formulation appeared to involve activation of the immune system.
“We are very excited about these results and are hoping to find funding for a small clinical trial of about 50 people with pre-cancerous lesions, with the aim of preventing the development of skin cancers,” Dr Greay said.
Unlike other clinically approved skin cancer chemotherapies, which have long treatment times of three to 16 weeks and can cause nausea and flu-like symptoms, the tea tree oil formulation only produces mild skin irritation which disappears within days of treatment finishing.
“We believe the formulation is crucial to prevent the evaporation and increase the penetration of tea tree oil through the skin,” Dr Greay said.
Australia has the highest incidence of skin cancer worldwide with around 434,000 Australians treated for one or more non-melanoma skin cancers every year. In addition, in 2001, Cancer Council Australia estimated the treatment of non-melanoma skin cancer cost $264 million.
Tea tree oil is a natural, renewable resource from Melaleuca alternifolia, a tree native to New South Wales. Increased demand for the oil would strengthen the industry and, besides the medical benefits, would also benefit the rural communities based on the production of the oil.
For more information on skin cancer including common types of skin cancers, and its treatment and preventative measures, as well as some useful videos, see Skin Cancer.