Olivia Newton-John Foundation to Fund Research on Herbal Therapies for Cancer
By Connor Yearsley
In October 2020, Dame Olivia Newton-John and her husband, herbalist John Easterling, launched the Olivia Newton-John Foundation (ONJ Foundation)1 to fund research on plant-based therapies to treat cancer and improve quality of life in people with cancer.
Newton-John, the British-Australian, Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and actress who co-starred as Sandy in the 1978 film Grease, was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992 and again in 2013. In 2018, she revealed the disease had returned for the third time and metastasized to her spine.2
“In the past few years, I have had wonderful success with herbs and cannabis [Cannabis spp., Cannabaceae] that my husband grows for me,” Newton-John said (oral communication, December 21, 2020). “I have many friends who are going through cancer, and they ask me about herbs and which ones they can take. A lot of them want the science. We thought it would be wonderful to start a foundation to research plant medicine, so we can show people how this is actually working. It is working for me, and it can work for you. I want to be able to share that knowledge with people.”
Newton-John, who has described herself as a “cancer thriver,” wants to find gentler ways to treat cancer, according to an article published by Good Morning America. “I’ve always thought, ‘Gosh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could create kinder therapies that help boost the body’s immune system instead of knocking us down?’” she was quoted as saying.2
The foundation will focus on all types of cancer, not just breast cancer, and Newton-John envisions a world beyond cancer. “That’s everything that drives me forward,” she was quoted as saying.2 “To think that we could help people … live in a world where cancer was just … something that you could live well with, which I’m doing. And I hope to continue to do that for a long time.”
Because the foundation is so new, it has not yet funded any studies, but Newton-John raised about 1 million Australian dollars ($764,855) for the foundation by auctioning about 300 items, including artwork and some of her collectible memorabilia. Newton-John and Easterling hope to fund their first study sometime in 2021.
“We would like to find anything that is of interest and value,” Easterling said. “But we want to specifically research some of the things that Olivia has been doing.”
For example, Newton-John and Easterling are interested in funding research on some Amazonian plants. Nicknamed “Amazon John,” Easterling spent many years traveling to and from the Amazon, studying edible and medicinal plants, and previously owned Amazon Herb Company.
Some of the well-known Amazonian plants he uses for Newton-John include chanca piedra, or stonebreaker (Phyllanthus niruri, Phyllanthaceae); graviola, or soursop (Annona muricata, Annonaceae); uña de gato, or cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa, Rubiaceae); and sangre de drago, or dragon’s blood (Croton lechleri, Euphorbiaceae). According to Easterling, preliminary studies show these plants may have benefits for immune support and may have the ability to compromise cancer cell viability.
Only a small fraction of the many thousands of plant species in the Amazon have been studied for their therapeutic value, Newton-John noted, “so there is a big choice out there, and I’m sure that as we delve into this, we will find other plants that show promise for treating cancer.”
Another of her go-to therapies is cannabis. At their home in California, where cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and recreational use is legal, Easterling breeds different chemovars (chemical varieties) of cannabis with different profiles of cannabinoids and terpenes and formulates them for Newton-John. “We are really confident that she is seeing benefit from the cannabis formula and that other people would also benefit from it,” Easterling said. “We know that there is research to do here on some specific cannabis chemovars or combinations of chemovars, and that is one area that we are interested in.”
With cannabis, “the pain relief is something that is obvious really quickly,” he said, but added that the potential benefits are much broader than that. It has anti-inflammatory3 and anti-nausea effects,4 and some cannabinoids like cannabidiol (CBD) have shown the ability to inhibit the migration of cancer cells and induce apoptosis, the natural process of programmed cell death, in cancer cells, as determined in both in vitro and in vivo research.5 According to Easterling, other cannabinoids, like cannabichromene (CBC), cannabidivarin (CBDV), cannabigerol (CBG), and tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), show potential benefits for cancer as well.
“We started the foundation so we can study these things and show the science, because people like to see the science behind these things,” Newton-John said. “I believe in [cannabis], and I believe it has been working for me really well. And I feel good. [Cannabis] is also good for mood, and mood goes along with pain relief, too.”
Newton-John and Easterling are interested in the possibility of working with the Australian National Institute of Integrative Medicine, which proposed a cannabis study to them. According to Easterling, this study would assess a cannabis product’s effects on circulating tumor cells (CTCs) and quality of life in people with cancer. “It looks very interesting,” Easterling said. “Because [CTCs are] a single marker, it would be more of a simplified study, as far as studies go.”
They are also interested in possibly funding research on fucoidan, a complex polysaccharide that is found in the cell walls of many species of brown seaweed. According to preliminary studies, fucoidan may have benefits for cancer.6
Newton-John and Easterling see their new foundation as an extension of the intentions of the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. Newton-John agreed to lend her name to the center on the condition that it emphasize “wellness” and incorporate other healing methods, including acupuncture, meditation, yoga, art therapy, music therapy, and oncology massage. The wellness center’s philosophy is to treat the mind as much as the body.7
According to Easterling, he and Newton-John helped influence the premier of the state of Victoria, Australia, to fund an AU$1 million study on cannabis and quality of life, which recently started at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre. This study is separate from the new foundation but may be similar to the type of research that Easterling and Newton-John want to fund through the foundation. “This is a wonderful world emerging here … as far as people recognizing the benefits of plant therapeutics,” Easterling said. “And we want to take it to a new space of recognition and add to the body of research.”
The most challenging part of starting the new foundation has been structuring, Newton-John said. In December 2020, about two months after launching the foundation, Newton-John and Easterling deregistered it in Australia and moved it to the United States, where they live. The COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult “to run the foundation and not be in the same country, and it was much simpler for us to move it [to the United States],” Newton-John said. Tax benefits for US donors was another motivation for the move.8
The ONJ Foundation is working with Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) America.9 The funding goes through CAF America, which helps find donors and ensures that researchers are qualified to receive funding.
Newton-John and Easterling will consider several criteria when deciding how to allocate funding through the foundation. “It will depend on what kind of research opportunities are presented to us,” Easterling said. “Is it something that rings our bell? Does it have pre-existing science behind it?
“It is going to be determined by the caliber of researchers behind it, what they have done before, the facility they are working from, and … the intention [of the research],” Easterling added. “Do the people have plant medicine experience? Another [factor] that is important to us is [plant] extracts as opposed to isolates. I think there is enough science to demonstrate extracts are [often] a better way to go.”
Newton-John said: “We are excited because this is John’s passion for his lifetime, and lucky me gets to marry a man who has such amazing knowledge of plant medicine that I’ve greatly benefited from. This is a joint venture for us…. I see the improvement in myself, and we see the improvement in our friends when we give them herbs to take. It is very exciting when they call up, and they have used only prescription medicines before and added [herbs] in, and they are seeing improvements. So, we just want to go further with it and contribute to the growing body of plant medicine research for cancer.”
Donations for the ONJ Foundation can be made here.
Image Credits (top to bottom)
- Olivia Newton-John Foundation website. Available at: www.onjfoundation.org/. Accessed March 15, 2021.
- FitzPatrick H. Olivia Newton-John talks new foundation and shares advice to women fighting breast cancer. Good Morning America website. October 19, 2020. Available at: www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/story/olivia-newton-john-talks-foundation-shares-advice-women-73635986. Accessed March 14, 2021.
- Russo EB. Cannabinoids in the management of difficult to treat pain. Ther Clin Risk Manag. 2008;4(1):245-259. doi: 10.2147/tcrm.s1928.
- Havelka J. How cannabis is used for nausea and vomiting relief. Leafly website. July 26, 2017. Available at: www.leafly.com/news/health/marijuana-for-nausea-and-vomiting-relief. Accessed March 15, 2021.
- Hermanson DJ, Marnett LJ. Cannabinoids, endocannabinoids and cancer. Cancer Metastasis Rev. 2011;30(3-4):599–612. doi: 10.1007/s10555-011-9318-8.
- Fucoidan. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website. Available at: www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/fucoidan. Accessed March 24, 2021.
- Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre website. Available at: www.onjcancercentre.org/. Accessed March 15, 2021.
- Godde C. Olivia Newton-John shifts charity to US. 7News website. December 9, 2020. Available at: 7news.com.au/news/charity/olivia-newton-john-shifts-charity-to-us-c-1736810. Accessed March 15, 2021.
- CAF America website. Available at: www.cafamerica.org/. Accessed March 15, 2021.