Usually the cancer affects children below 6 years of age, and if left untreated can be fatal. Dr. Joan O'Brien of the University of California, San Francisco, who led the study said, 'The great majority of the cases exist in the developing world, where it is a fatal disease.'
The prevailing treatment involves a combination of chemotherapy agents or radiation which has a 95% survival rate if the treatment is begun in the initial stages of cancer. But the treatment is fraught with many side effects.
O'Brien and colleagues at UCSF, in their quest to find alternative treatment methods for retinoblastoma devoid of strong side-effects, sought to experiment with the tree bark extract, called beta-lapachone. The extract was found to be useful in the treatment of other types of cancers like breast and prostate cancer.
Their experiment revealed that beta-lapachone was capable of impeding rapid cell growth of human tumor cells. Further, minimum doses could even trigger the tumor cells to commit suicide, medically termed as apoptosis.
To infer, the scientists are extremely optimistic about the effectiveness of the extract. They intend to carry experiments on mice suffering the disease. 'The nice thing about the agent is that it kills at very low doses and it appears to be selective to cancer,' O'Brien said.