Cancer Immunology Researchers Dr Luby Simson and Dr Bilquis Ara.

Cancer Immunology Researchers Dr Luby Simson and Dr Bilquis Ara. Photo: Jay Cronan

It is a European Christmas tradition, and an annual excuse for a stolen kiss.

But University of Canberra researchers are investigating how mistletoe can be used to improve the effectiveness of cancer treatments and give sufferers better quality of life.

Associate professor of biomedical sciences, Luby Simson, said research showed the plant itself contained active molecules that helped stimulate the immune system in preparedness to get rid of cancer cells or directly attacked the cancer cells, and a toxin in the plant's berries contributed to the effectiveness of mistletoe treatments.

Dr Simson said mistletoe extract was already used in Europe as a complementary cancer treatment, but was not widely offered to Australian patients.

She and doctorate scholar Bilquis Ara are working with German pharmaceutical manufacturer Abnoba on improving the delivery of mistletoe treatment by enclosing it in fatty liposome capsules rather than injecting the extract directly into the muscle of patients. Liposome is commonly used to deliver other cancer treatments, and works to disguise its content from the immune system until it reaches the cancer cell and is released.

"The trick here is that when it gets to the cancer cell, you actually want the payload to be released and stimulate the immune system, but you want it to be stimulated specifically in the area of the cancer cell," she said.

Dr Simson said overseas cancer patients who had received mistletoe treatments reported feeling generally better.

"You actually ask the patients, well how are you feeling today, and generally their wellness state is improved, and that's even in cases when the actual efficacy of treatment isn't necessarily better but the patient feels better while on the treatment," she said.

Mistletoe treatments are only offered in Australia to end-stage clinical patients who had no other alternative treatments.

Dr Simson would like to see the treatment fully validated in Australia, put through approval procedures to comply with national regulations, and made more widely available to cancer patients.

She said some patients in Europe were choosing mistletoe treatments instead of chemotherapy. ''That really does come across when you talk to cancer patients, they wish they had more choices,'' she said.