Researchers find that “plant-based” bilirubin is a potent antioxidant with anti-cancer properties

Researchers from South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal have found that bilirubin, a compound found in wild banana (Srelitzia nicolai), has potent antioxidant properties. This makes bilirubin a potential treatment for cervical cancer, which is one of the largest health problems in the region.

The team investigated whether bilirubin, which was extracted from the plant’s arils, contains anti-cancer properties. While earlier studies have demonstrated bilirubin’s antioxidant and anti-cancer properties, they also looked at how the compound affects apoptosis or cell death. To determine these factors, the researchers used the bilirubin extract from the arils and compared it with a bilirubin isolate. They also conducted multiple tests to assess the extract’s chemical composition and antioxidant properties, as well as its ability to induce programmed cell death and its potential harm on healthy cells.

The results revealed that the extract reduced the viability of cancer cells by over 50 percent, and prompted cell death on HeLa cell lines. To note, these cell lines are taken from a person for scientific use. It also exhibited strong antioxidant activity, which indicates its potential anti-cancer properties. Interestingly, the extract resulted in smaller cells than that of the bilirubin standard, which indicate the presence of cell death, even in later stages.

The researchers concluded that the bilirubin extracted from wild bananas was more potent than the standard isolate, thanks to its ability to prevent cancer cell growth and induce apoptosis. The team also concluded that it could potentially be used for treating cervical cancer.

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The findings of the study were published in the African Journal of Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines.

Not just from animals

Interestingly, scientists first thought that bilirubin only came from animals, as it was seen after the breakdown of hemoglobin in red blood cells. It’s also known as the yellowish pigment linked to bruises and jaundice. (Related: Cleanse and protect the liver with these nutritious whole foods.)

However, a study led by researchers from Florida International University found that bilirubin also occurs in wild banana — a plant noted for having similar leaves to the banana plant and produces white, cream, or gray flowers. A similar study in 2010 also revealed the pigment in the orange bird of paradise plant, which is known for its vibrant orange and blue flowers. Both the wild banana and bird of paradise plants are native to South Africa. In this study, the researchers used high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) and HPLC/electrospray ionization-tandem mass spectrometry and found that bilirubin was present at the plant’s aril pigment and in the plant’s sepals at low levels.

“This research is the first discovery of bilirubin in a flower; it verifies the presence of bilirubin in a plant species other than Strelitzia nicolai. With further research on the function, distribution, and synthesis of bilirubin in plants, the information may be useful for practical applications such as the manipulation of color through breeding and genetics,” the researchers concluded.

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