Chinese Medicine Goes Under the Microscope
—Shirley S. Wang
Scientists studying a four-herb combination discovered some 1,800 years ago by Chinese herbalists have found that the substance enhances the effectiveness of chemotherapy in patients with colon cancer.
Early studies show a traditional four-herb combination has cancer-treatment benefits. The herbs are Chinese peony (pictured), Chinese jujube, Chinese licorice and baikal skullcap.
The mixture, known in China as huang qin tang, has been shown in early trials to be effective at reducing some side effects of chemotherapy, including diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. The herbs also seem to bolster colon-cancer treatment: Tests on animals with tumors have shown that administering the herbs along with chemotherapy drugs restored intestinal cells faster than when chemo was used alone.
The herb combination, dubbed PHY906 by scientists, is a rare example of a plant-based product used in traditional folk medicine that could potentially jump the hurdle into mainstream American therapy. A scientific team led by Yung-Chi Cheng, an oncology researcher at Yale University, and funded in part by the National Cancer Institute, is planning to begin Phase II clinical trials to study PHY906’s effectiveness in people with colon cancer.
Photo Researchers Inc.
Many conventional medications are derived from individual chemical agents originally found in plants. In the case of huang qin tang, however, scientists so far have identified 62 active chemicals in the four-herb combination that apparently need to work together to be effective.
“What Dr. Cheng is doing is keeping [the herbal combination] as a complex entity and using that as an agent,” says Josephine Briggs, head of the federal National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which is helping fund some of the PHY906 research. “It’s polypharmacy,” or the equivalent of several drugs being administered at once.
Dr. Cheng began his research on huang qin tang about a dozen years ago when he sought a better way of dealing with the chemotherapy’s side effects. A variety of medications are currently used to treat these symptoms, but with varying success. A more effective technique could improve patients’ quality of life and possibly allow them to tolerate a larger dose of chemo, which might speed up their course of treatment, he says.
Dr. Cheng, who grew up in Taiwan, turned to Chinese traditional medicine, which often touts holistic treatments and multiple health claims for a single herb. In herbal literature he found mention of huang qin tang, a herbal combination traditionally used in China for gastrointestinal problems, and decided to test whether it could help cancer patients without compromising the effectiveness of the chemotherapy.
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