Other common name(s): carnivora, plumbagin
Scientific/medical name(s): Dionaea muscipula
The Venus flytrap is a perennial plant that traps and eats insects. It is native to the low-lying wetlands of the southeastern United States. After being harvested, the whole fresh plant is pressed to remove the liquid extract, which is used as an herbal remedy. It is also used in mixtures like Carnivora, a patented formula that includes many ingredients in addition to Venus flytrap extract. Venus flytrap extract is sold in capsule and liquid form to be taken by mouth and as an injectable liquid.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that extract from the Venus flytrap plant is effective in treating skin cancer or any other type of cancer. Some side effects have been reported with its use.
How is it promoted for use?
Most sellers of Venus flytrap extract base information about their products on claims about Carnivora. Proponents claim that Carnivora and Venus flytrap extract have immune stimulant and anticancer properties. Some even claim that the extract can be applied directly to some skin cancer lesions to substitute for radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Some claim that Carnivora can lead to the total reversal of skin and other forms of cancer. Supporters also claim that Carnivora is effective for treating colitis, Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, neurodermatitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, HIV, and certain types of herpes.
What does it involve?
Proponents suggest that full-strength or diluted Venus flytrap liquid extracts can be placed under the tongue or mixed with water to make a drink. One form of Carnivora can be injected into the skin, a vein, or muscle. Carnivora can also be inhaled through a vaporizer or applied directly to the skin. Liquid Venus flytrap extracts for oral use, including Carnivora, contain about 25% to 30% alcohol.
There is no standard dose for the extracts, and instructions vary. One product, for example, recommends mixing 15 to 30 drops of the extract in warm water and drinking it 1 to 3 times a day. Another advises against swallowing the extract, since it may be inactivated by stomach acids. Instead, the seller suggests taking ½ teaspoon and holding it under the tongue until absorbed, 3 to 5 times a day. The recommendation for Carnivora liquid is to take 30 drops mixed with water or tea 3to 5 times per day. Carnivora capsules are said to contain 125 micrograms of Venus flytrap along with its other listed ingredients (1,000 micrograms = 1 milligram). The manufacturer suggests taking 6 to 9 capsules per day. If the injectable form of Carnivora is obtained from Germany, a doctor or other health care professional is needed to inject it.
What is the history behind it?
In the 1970s, a German physician began testing liquids pressed from the Venus flytrap to determine whether they could digest abnormal proteins found in cancer cells. Several years later he patented Carnivora. In a 1985 study, he claimed that out of 210 people with various types of cancer, 56% experienced either remission or stabilization of their tumors. He published the findings in a little-known German medical journal, and the results were never verified. Carnivora is not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and physicians in this country cannot legally prescribe the drug. The FDA prohibits its import into the United States except for personal use.
What is the evidence?
Available scientific evidence does not support the health claims made for Venus flytrap extract. Plumbagin, a substance found in many plants, is thought to be the active ingredient in the Venus flytrap. The plant also contains other compounds such as flavonoids, acids, and enzymes (digestive proteins).
Most of the studies done on the herbal extract were conducted by the physician who patented the drug Carnivora, who also has a large financial stake in a clinic that administers the drug and in the company that manufactures the drug.
An animal study conducted in India to study the effects of plumbagin (taken from the Indian medicinal plant Plumbago rosea) combined with radiation therapy was inconclusive. A second animal study in India found that plumbagin demonstrated a small degree of antitumor activity. The results of several other studies from India were positive but inconclusive. A laboratory study in Japan indicated that plumbagin had some effect against intestinal tumors, and other laboratory studies show that plumbagin can induce cell death Although animal and laboratory studies show promise, further studies are necessary to determine whether the results apply to humans. It is important to remember that purified compounds such as plumbagin are not the same as the fresh plant extract, and study results would not be likely to show the same effects.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
This product is sold as a dietary supplement in the United States. Unlike companies that produce drugs (which must provide the FDA with results of detailed testing showing their product is safe and effective before the drug is approved for sale), the companies that make supplements do not have to show evidence of safety or health benefits to the FDA before selling their products. Supplement products without any reliable scientific evidence of health benefits may still be sold as long as the companies selling them do not claim the supplements can prevent, treat, or cure any specific disease. Some such products may not contain the amount of the herb or substance that is written on the label, and some may include other substances (contaminants). Though the FDA has written new rules to improve the quality of manufacturing processes for dietary supplements and the accurate listing of supplement ingredients, these rules do not take full effect until 2010. And, the new rules do not address the safety of supplement ingredients or their effects on health when proper manufacturing techniques are used.
Most such supplements have not been tested to find out if they interact with medicines, foods, or other herbs and supplements. Even though some reports of interactions and harmful effects may be published, full studies of interactions and effects are not often available. Because of these limitations, any information on ill effects and interactions below should be considered incomplete.
Liquid extracts of Venus flytrap, including Carnivora, do not appear to be toxic when taken by mouth, but not enough is known about the active ingredients for scientists to ensure that they are safe. When liquid extracts have been injected into the skin, muscle, or veins, side effects have included nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and collapse of the circulatory system. Skin contact with the fresh plant can cause irritation, and allergic reactions are possible.
Plumbagin is known to cause toxic side effects such as diarrhea, skin rash, liver damage, and abnormal blood counts. In animal studies, female rats given plumbagin failed to conceive, while those not given plumbagin conceived easily. In addition, pregnant rats given the drug were more likely to abort. It also affected sperm in male animals. Plumbagin appears to act as an oxidant, which can damage DNA, enzymes, and cell membranes. The extent of plumbagin’s toxic effects is not yet known.
Most of the liquid extracts of Venus flytrap contain between 25% and 30% alcohol, which may cause harmful interactions with medicines such as disulfiram and metronidazole. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking alcohol-containing medicines. None of these preparations or extracts should be used by pregnant or breast-feeding women. Relying on these treatments alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
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-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Summary of data for chemical selection: plumbagin 481-42-5. 2000. National Toxicology Program Web site. Accessed at http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/Chem_Background/ExSumPdf/Plumbagin.pdf on June 6, 2008.
Devi PU, Rao BS, Solomon FE. Effect of plumbagin on the radiation-induced cytogenetic and cell cycle changes in mouse Ehrlich ascites carcinoma in vivo. Indian J Exp Biol. 1998;36:891-895.
Gruenwald J. PDR for Herbal Medicines. 3rd ed. Montvale, NJ: Thomson PDR; 2004.
Kini DP, Pandey S, Shenoy BD, et al. Antitumor and antifertility activities of plumbagin-controlled release formulations. Indian J Exp Biol. 1997;35:374-379.
Srinivas G, Annab LA, Gopinath G, Banerji A, Srinivas P. Antisense blocking of BRCA1 enhances sensitivity to plumbagin but not tamoxifen in BG-1 ovarian cancer cells. Mol Carcinog. 2004;39:15-25.
Srinivas P, Gopinath G, Banerji A, Dinakar A, Srinivas G. Plumbagin induces reactive oxygen species, which mediate apoptosis in human cervical cancer cells. Mol Carcinog. 2004;40:201-211.
Sugie S, Okamoto K, Rahman KM, et al. Inhibitory effects of plumbagin and juglone on azoxymethane-induced intestinal carcinogenesis in rats. Cancer Lett. 1998;127:177-183.
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: 11/28/2008