Objectives: Despite its historical-religious, cultural and medical importance, Boswellia has not been thoroughly studied, and gaps still exist between our knowledge of the traditional uses of the resin and the scientific data available. Here we review the pharmacology of Boswellia resin and of the small molecules identified as the active ingredients of the resin.
Key findings: The resin of Boswellia species ('frankincense', 'olibanum') has been used as incense in religious and cultural ceremonies since the beginning of written history. Its medicinal properties are also widely recognized, mainly in the treatment of inflammatory conditions, as well as in some cancerous diseases, wound healing and for its antimicrobial activity. Until recently, work on Boswellia focused on the immunomodulatory properties of the resin and boswellic acids were considered to be the main, if not the only, active ingredients of the resin. Hence, this family of triterpenoids was investigated by numerous groups, both in vitro and in vivo. These compounds were shown to exert significant anti-inflammatory and pro-apoptotic activity in many assays: in vitro, in vivo and in clinical trials. We recently found incensole acetate and its derivatives, which are major components of Boswellia resin, to be nuclear factor-kappaB inhibitors, thus suggesting that they are, at least in part, responsible for its anti-inflammatory effects. Incensole acetate also exerts a robust neuroprotective effect after brain trauma in mice. Furthermore, it causes behavioural as well as anti-depressive and anxiolytic effects in mice. It is also a potent agonist of the transient receptor potential (TRP)V3 channel. It thus seems that incensole acetate and its derivatives play a significant role in the effects that Boswellia resin exerts on biological systems.
Conclusions: Altogether, studies on Boswellia resin have provided an arsenal of bio-active small molecules with a considerable therapeutic potential that is far from being utilized.