Preparations from the European mistletoe (Viscum album L.) are among the most prescribed drugs in cancer patients in several European countries. Proponents claim that mistletoe extracts stimulate the immune system, improve survival, enhance quality of life and reduce adverse effects of chemo- and radiotherapy in cancer patients. The review found that there was not enough evidence to reach clear conclusions about the effects on any of these outcomes and it is therefore not clear to what extent the application of mistletoe extracts translates into improved symptom control, enhanced tumour response or prolonged survival. Adverse effects of mistletoe extracts were reported, but appeared to be dose-dependent and primarily confined to reactions at injection site and mild, transient flu-like symptoms. In the absence of good quality, independent trials, decisions about whether mistletoe extracts are likely to be beneficial for a particular problem should rely on expert judgement and practical considerations.
The evidence from RCTs to support the view that the application of mistletoe extracts has impact on survival or leads to an improved ability to fight cancer or to withstand anticancer treatments is weak. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that mistletoe extracts may offer benefits on measures of QOL during chemotherapy for breast cancer, but these results need replication. Overall, more high quality, independent clinical research is needed to truly assess the safety and effectiveness of mistletoe extracts. Patients receiving mistletoe therapy should be encouraged to take part in future trails.
Mistletoe extracts are commonly used in cancer patients. It is claimed that they improve survival and quality of life (QOL) in cancer patients.
To determine the effectiveness, tolerability and safety of mistletoe extracts given either as monotherapy or adjunct therapy for patients with cancer.
Search sources included the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, Issue 3, 2007) Cochrane Complementary Medicine Field Registry of randomized clinical trials (RCTs) and controlled clinical trials, MEDLINE, EMBASE, HEALTHSTAR, INT. HEALTH TECHNOLOGY ASSESSMENT, SOMED, AMED, BIOETHICSLINE, BIOSIS, CancerLit, CATLINE, CISCOM (August 2007).
For the search the Standard Operating Procedures of the Information System in Health Economics at the German Institute for Medical Documentation and Information (DIMDI) were utilized. Reference lists of relevant articles and authors extensive files were searched for additional studies. Manufacturers of mistletoe preparations were contacted.
We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of adults with cancer of any type. The interventions were mistletoe extracts as sole treatments or given concomitantly with chemo- or radiotherapy. The outcome measures were survival times, tumor response, QOL, psychological distress, adverse effects from antineoplastic treatment and safety of mistletoe extracts.
Three review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion in the review. All review authors independently took part in the extraction of data and assessment of study quality and clinical relevance. Disagreements were resolved by consensus. Study authors were contacted where information was unclear. Methodological quality was narratively described and additionally assessed with the Delphi list and the Jadad score. High methodological quality was defined if six out of nine Delphi criteria, or four out of five Jadad criteria were fulfilled. Results were presented qualitatively.
Eighty studies were identified. Fifty-eight were excluded for various reasons, usually as there was no prospective trial design with randomised treatment allocation. Of the 21 included studies 13 provided data on survival, 7 on tumour response, 16 on measures of QOL or psychological outcomes, or prevalence of chemotherapy-related adverse effects and 12 on side effects of mistletoe treatment; overall comprising 3484 randomised cancer patients. Interventions evaluated were 5 preparations of mistletoe extracts from 5 manufacturers and one commercially not available preparation. The general reporting of RCTs was poor.
Of the 13 trials investigating survival, 6 showed some evidence of a benefit, but none of them was of high methodological quality. The results of two trials in patients with melanoma and head and neck cancer gave some evidence that the used mistletoe extracts are not effective for improving survival.
Of the 16 trials investigating the efficacy of mistletoe extracts for either improving QOL, psychological measures, performance index, symptom scales or the reduction of adverse effects of chemotherapy, 14 showed some evidence of a benefit, but only 2 of them including breast cancer patients during chemotherapy were of higher methodological quality.
Data on side effects indicated that, depending on the dose, mistletoe extracts were usually well tolerated and had few side effects.