Introduction

Semiparasitic plants, mistletoes distributed in Korea and other East-Asian countries (mainly China and Japan) have long been recognised as therapeutic herbs (Li, 1975). Mistletoes are traditionally used as sedative, analgesic, spasmolytic, cardiac and anticancer agent; the herbs are also used to tone the liver and kidneys, strengthen tendons and bones, expel pathogens associated with rheumatism, stabilise the fetus and cause lactogenesis [Hsu Hong-yen, 1972; Zee-Cheng, 1997].

The use of mistletoes as a remedy for circulatory and nervous disorders dates from antiquity. Modern pharmacological studies have demonstrated their cardiotonic, antihypertensive (Wagner et al., 1986; Fukunaga et al., 1989b) and antiplatelet aggregatory activity in vitro (Zhu et al., 1985; Samal et al., 1995). In Korea, mistletoes were also used to treat tachyarrhythmia (Wu et al., 1994a,b), acute myocardial infarction (Zhu et al., 1984, 1985, Cheng et al., 1985) and schizophrenia (Okuda et al., 1987). The herbs contain substances such as choline and acetylcholine which are known for their regulatory effect on blood pressure and circulation for toning the heart muscle (Pora et al., 1957; Paskov et al., 1958a,b; Samuelsson et al., 1959; Samal et al., 1995; Wagner et al., 1986). In animals, the herbs also have diuretic (Li et al., 1959), antibacterial (Xu, 1947) and antihepatoxic effects (Yang et al., 1987).

Since the 1920s, extracts from European mistletoe (Viscum album L., VA-E) are popular in Europe as an unconventional cancer treatment. These extracts have been used in adjuvant cancer therapy with immunostimulatory, cytostatic/cytotoxic and DNA stabilising properties (Hajto et al., 1989; Stein and Berg, 1997; Beuth, 1997; Büssing et al., 1995, 1996). VA-E contains various toxic and nontoxic proteins, alkaloids, flavonoids and polysaccharides (Pfüller et al., 1993; Ribereau-Gayon, et al., 1986, 1993).

While the European mistletoe has been studied intensively, we know less about Korean mistletoes and other East-Asian populations as therapeutic herbs, especially as a suggested anticancer drug. This chapter will present an overview on the current knowledge of the botany and recent investigations on the chemical components and their biological activities of Korean mistletoes and other East-Asian populations.

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