English Common Name: Blackseed, Black cumin, Black caraway
Arabic Name: حبه البركة
Nigella sativa is an annual flowering plant of the Ranunculaceae family and grows in Pakistan, India and countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. It can reach 20–30 cm in height, with finely divided, linear leaves. The flowers are delicate, with 5–10 pale blue or white petals. The fruit is a large and inflated capsule containing numerous seeds.
The seed of this plant is commonly referred to as the blackseed, but is also known as the black cumin, the black caraway seed and Habbatu l-barakah ( حبه البركة) in Arabic, which translates directly into "the seed of blessing.” Seeds of Nigella sativa have been found in several sites from ancient Egypt, including Tutankhamun's tomb. Although its exact role in Egyptian culture is unknown, it is known that items entombed with a pharaoh were carefully selected to assist him in the afterlife. It is also mentioned in several religious texts including the Bible, Quran and the Torah.
One sure thing is that the blackseed has been used as a natural remedy in folk-medicine for more than 2000 years to treat maladies such as headache, coughs, abdominal pain, diarrhea, asthma and rheumatism and is still incorporated in the diets and everyday lifestyles of the people of the Middle East.
The historical and extensive use of Nigella sativa has led some researchers in the middle of the last century to examine it in laboratories. They discovered that, although the chemical composition of the blackseed is rich, one molecule, Thymoquinone, represented 50% of its aromatic oil and seemed to be responsible for the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties of the seed.
Although the molecule was discovered for the first time in 1963, its success story began fairly recently. In 2000, Professor Hala Muhtasib was a young Lebanese researcher, trying to find a more efficient therapy for colon cancer. Through her readings, she found numerous studies demonstrating the anti-cancer properties of Thymoquinone against stomach, bone and skin cancer but no one had proved its anti-cancer activity in colon, in spite of its folk use for digestive diseases. She truly believed in the potential of this molecule that showed a very low degree of toxicity towards healthy cells and recognized that this was an opportunity for innovation in the field of cancer research. She needed to find collaborators and most of all, funding. She found a dynamic and enthusiastic partner in Professor Dr Regine Schneider-Stock at the 2000 World Oncology Congress in Crete. Neither of them imagined that their collaboration would be so successful. The German Research Foundation awarded the duo three substantial grants to pursue their research and they made a name for themselves with the publication of their results in the number one scientific journal on cancer, Cancer Research. After they proved the effectiveness of Thymoquinone in the treatment of colon cancer, both researchers have become big names in the field of cancer research. What follows is a summary of the results of their research.
Studies performed both on human cells in-vitro and on live animals (in-vivo) proved that Thymoquinone has the ability to delay the formation and reduce the growth of cancer and destroy cancerous cells. These properties are especially efficient when the cancer is in its early stages.
Moreover, in mouse cancer models, Professor Dr Regine Schneider-Stock and collaborators showed that mixing extracts of Nigella sativa with existing anti-cancer drugs enhanced the anti-cancer effect of the drug and attenuated some of its well-known negative side effects. As a result, a larger number of cancerous cells were killed and Nigella sativa prevented the drug from degrading the functions of the kidneys, the liver and the heart.
Thymoquinone has raised such interest in the scientific world that researchers from all over the world are now working on it and the synthetized molecule is today available for scientific use.
The new objective of Dr. Muhtasib and Dr. Schneider-Stock is to push Thymoquinone into the clinical setting, since so far only one study investigated its efficacy in adult patients with blood cancer. The doctors and their collaborators are currently gathering all the work that has been done on Thymoquinone in order to produce a review paper to mark the 50 year anniversary of the discovery of the molecule.