Other common name(s): greater celandine, Ukrain™, common celandine, tetterwort, celandine poppy, Chelidonium majus (Note that this is different from lesser celandine, which is in a different family of plants)
Scientific/medical name(s): Chelidonium majus
The celandine plant, a flowering member of the poppy family, grows in Europe and the temperate and subarctic regions of Asia. The roots, herb, and juice are used as remedies.
Ukrain, promoted as a cancer drug, is a semisynthetic compound formed by chemically combining alkaloids from the celandine plant with thiophosphoric acid derivatives, including an older cancer treatment drug called thiotepa.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that celandine is effective in treating cancer in humans. Small studies conducted mostly in Eastern Europe found that Ukrain had some positive effects; however, substantial limitations in the methods used in these clinical trials limit the relevance of their results, which have not been rechecked to verify the treatment’s safety and effectiveness. Celandine has been reported to cause hepatitis when used as an herbal preparation.
How is it promoted for use?
Celandine is promoted for use as a mild sedative, to prevent gallstones, and to treat intestinal and digestive problems, liver disease, and eye irritation. Practitioners have used it on the skin to treat ringworm, warts, and corns. Supporters have also used celandine along with antiviral agents to treat herpes, HIV, and the Epstein-Barr virus.
Proponents claim Ukrain, which contains celandine along with thiotepa (a chemotherapy drug) and other compounds, improves overall health for people who have many types of cancer including lung, colon, kidney, ovarian, breast, brain, pancreatic, and skin cancer. They further claim it helps people who have cancer live longer by boosting the immune system and inhibiting tumor growth, without any major side effects. Ukrain supposedly causes cancer cells to die and leaves healthy cells undamaged. Proponents also claim that it protects cells from radiation damage, although strong scientific evidence supporting these claims is not available.
What does it involve?
Celandine is on the Commission E (Germany’s regulatory agency for herbs) list of approved herbs for treatment of intestinal spasms. It can be bought in health food stores and from Internet sellers. It is usually sold as a whole plant, although sellers sometimes offer just the top or the root. It is also available as an extract, tincture, or tea. The average dosage is two to five grams per day. It can be taken internally or used externally. A very dilute concentration is used in homeopathy, mainly as a liver remedy (see our document, Homeopathy).
Ukrain is given as an injection at a wide range of doses. One regimen involves from 5 to 20 milligrams given every 3 or 4 days, continuing for 5 weeks before taking a 1 to 2 week break. This cycle is repeated for a year or longer. Ukrain is available from some clinics in Europe and Mexico, a few alternative therapy clinics in the United States, or through mail order.
What is the history behind it?
Celandine has long been believed in folk medicine to have disease-fighting effects. It was taken to reduce spasms and calm the patient, and it was thought to help asthma, gallbladder problems, and liver disease. It was also used for treatment of polyps, lumps, cramps, gout, swelling, and many other conditions. It was especially popular in former Soviet states and, as early as 1931, was claimed to be effective in treating some cases of cancer.
Ukrain, a chemical combination of compounds from the plant celandine and thiophosphoric acid, was first developed in 1978 by J. W. Nowicky, a native of the Ukraine and director of the Ukrain Anticancer Institute of Vienna, Austria. He first presented it at the 13th International Congress of Chemotherapy in Vienna in 1983. It is named after the country Ukraine. This drug has not been approved for use in the United States nor in most European countries.
What is the evidence?
Available scientific evidence does not support claims about the benefits of celandine. One compound extracted from celandine was tested in rodents in 2007 to find out whether it would help rheumatoid arthritis. While the study looked promising, more studies are needed to determine whether it will work in humans without producing serious side effects. It is important to note also that the whole herb would not be expected to produce the same effect as a purified extract.
There have been some case reports and small studies suggesting that treatment with Ukrain may decrease tumor size and improve overall health, including increasing appetite, reducing pain in joints, and reducing fever in people who have cancer. However, a 2005 review of all seven randomized controlled trials performed on Ukrain found they were generally weak studies. Methods and findings were not completely reported, and sample sizes were small. Response and survival rates in these studies were often higher than what is possible with the combination of chemotherapy drugs currently available in the United States. In addition, virtually all of the animal and human studies were published by researchers affiliated with the institution where Ukrain was developed. The size and methods of these studies are not considered by most cancer researchers to be sufficient for supporting the promoters’ claims. Later studies have been done on cells in the lab, or in animals. Randomized clinical trials are needed to determine the safety and antitumor effects of Ukrain, if any, in humans.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
Researchers have found that celandine may be responsible for many unexplained cases of hepatitis (inflamed liver). The medical literature contains reports of acute (sudden) hepatitis not caused by viruses, alcohol, or other drugs, which improved after the herb was stopped.
Celandine can cause rashes, itching, and serious allergic reactions in some people. The whole plant is reported as being at least mildly poisonous to humans, with the roots being the most toxic. The herb is reported to be poisonous to dogs and some farm animals.
There are reports that Ukrain (the blend of celandine extracts with thiophosphoric acid derivatives) has caused pain, nausea, thirst, fever, and swelling or bleeding in the tumor area. “Information for physicians” at the proukrain.com website also lists others, including dizziness, depression, insomnia, sleepiness, fatigue, restlessness, apathy, increased fluid requirement, increased urination, tension, tingling sensations, stabbing pains, itching, feeling of warmth, burning and/or dragging pains in the tumor area, heavy perspiration and shivering.
Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use any form of this herb, including Ukrain.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-227-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Barrett S. T.R. Shanta, MD, prosecuted for fraud. Accessed at www.casewatch.org/doj/shantha/indictment.shtml on April 8, 2011
Blumenthal M, ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 1998.
Boyko VN, Belski SN. The influence of the novel drug Ukrain on hemo- and immunopoiesis at the time of its maximum radioprotective effect. Drugs Exp Clin Res. 1998;24:335-337.
Boyko VN, Levshina YeV. A study of the influence of the novel drug Ukrain on in vivo effects of low-dose ionizing radiation. Drugs Exp Clin Res. 1998;24:339-341.
Ernst E, Schmidt K. Ukrain-a new cancer cure? A systematic review of randomised clinical trials. BMC Cancer. 2005;5:69.
Gruenwald J, Brendler T, Jaenicke C. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 4th ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson Healthcare Inc; 2007, 180-181.
Habermehl D, Kammerer B, Handrick R, et al. Proapoptotic activity of Ukrain is based on Chelidonium majus L. alkaloids and mediated via a mitochondrial death pathway. BMC Cancer. 2006;6:14.
Lee YC, Kim SH, Roh SS, Choi HY, Seo YB. Suppressive effects of Chelidonium majus methanol extract in knee joint, regional lymph nodes, and spleen on collagen-induced arthritis in mice. J Ethnopharmacol. 2007;112:40-48. Epub 2007 Feb 2.
Moro PA, Cassetti F, Giugliano G, et al. Hepatitis from Greater celandine (Chelidonium majus L.): review of literature and report of a new case. J Ethnopharmacol. 2009 Jul 15;124(2):328-32.
Plants for a Future Web site. Chelidonium majus – l. greater celandine. Accessed at www.pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Chelidonium majus on April 7, 2011.
Proukrain.com Web site. Information for Physicians. Accessed at http://proukrain.com/infophys.html on April 8, 2011.
Provet Veterinary Web site. Chelidonium majus (celandine poppy). Accessed at http://www.provet.co.uk on April 8, 2011.
Stickel F, Pöschl G, Seitz HK, et al. Acute hepatitis induced by Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus). Scand J Gastroenterol. 2003;38:565-568.
Susak YM, Skivka LM, Rudik MP, et al. Comparative investigation of the effect of Ukrain on growth of ascite and solid forms of Ehrlich's carcinoma. Exp Oncol. 2010 Jul;32(2):107-110.
Uglianitsa KN, Nefyodov LI, Brzosko W. Evaluation of the efficacy of Ukrain in the treatment of breast cancer: clinical and laboratory studies. Drugs Exp Clin Res. 1998;24:231-239.
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Web site. Ukrain. Accessed at www.mskcc.org/mskcc/html/69402.cfm on April 7, 2011..
Ukrin Web Site. The first medicament that kills cancer cells but not healthy cells. Accessed at www.ukrin.com/en/selective-effect on April 7, 2011
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 08/15/2011