Study confirms TCM compound kills cancer cells
In what could be a breakthrough in the way we treat cancer, new research has found that a common compound used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) could soon become the latest weapon against the disease.
In a paper published in online journal Oncotarget, Professor David Adelson at the University of Adelaide’s Zhendong Australia China Centre for Molecular Traditional Chinese Medicine has pinpointed how a complex mix of plant compounds known as the compound kushen injection (CKI) can kill MCF-7 breast cancer cells. (MCF-7 is a cell line isolated in the early ’70s and the first “mammary cell line that was capable of living longer than a few months”.)
Made using the roots of two traditional medicinal herbs, kushen (Radix sophorae flavescentis) and baituling (Rhizoma smilacis glabrae), CKI has been used in the treatment of tumours in Chinese clinical practices for more than 15 years, often in conjunction with Western chemotherapy treatment.
But while practitioners of TCM simply knew that the compound worked on tumours, how it did so has remained relatively unknown.
To solve this mystery, in vitro MCF-7 breast cancer cells were treated with the compound for 24 and 48 hours at two concentrations. Adelson and his team found that the chemical fingerprint of CKI had at least eight different components including two primary compounds, matrine and oxymatrine, both of which had previously demonstrated anti-tumour effects. During the testing process, Adelson also found that not only does CKI inhibit the development of the cancerous cells but it also aided in neutralising and killing off existing ones.
“We showed that the patterns of gene expression triggered by CKI affect the same pathways as western chemotherapy but by acting on different genes in the same pathways,” says Professor Adelson.
“These genes regulate the cell cycle of division and death, and it seems that CKI alters the way the cell cycle is regulated to push cancer cells down the cell death pathway, therefore killing the cells.”
But according to Adelson, it wasn’t just these two compounds working alone that ensured the success of CKI against cancerous cells but CKI’s complex “multiple compounds [that] may deliver an integrated anti-tumor effect through multiple targets and their associated molecular pathways”.
“The two plants contain different compounds and at present we don’t know which compounds or specific combination or ratio of these compounds are active against cancer cells. That work is the subject of ongoing research in my lab,” he says.
“This is one of the first studies to show the molecular mode of action of a complex mixture of plant-based compounds – in this case extracts from the roots of two medicinal herbs, kushen and baituling – by applying what’s known as a systems biology approach. This is a way of analysing complex biological systems that attempts to take into account all measurable aspects of the system rather than focusing on a single variable.”
According to Dr Yoland Antill, a medical oncologist based in Victoria, more testing needs to be done before CKI becomes available to cancer sufferers in Australia just yet. But it is a start.
“”It’s important to note that the testing was done on a cell line — not a living tumour,” she tells the Juice Daily.
“Cell lines are immortalised and have many different genetic characteristics to a live tumour.
“What this [research] is, is an opportunity to look at Chinese herbal medicine in a formal laboratory setting and understand how it works. Clinicians, such as myself, taught in a Western medical system remain unsure if TCM might counteract chemotherapy, potentiate the risk of side-effects or toxicity. Or even if patients are spending thousands of dollars on something that has no value whatsoever.
“We know many therapeutic agents come from traditional sources and this research can help find what compounds or parts of TCM can help or what side-effects they may have with other treatments.”
Adelson says he is hopeful that these early positive results will open up the opportunity for more research in the potential use of CKI and TCM in cancer research.
“This research means that there are good grounds for pursuing clinical trials for CKI in order to determine if the activity we have demonstrated in cultured cancer cells can also occur in patient tumours,” he tells Fairfax.
“Our study is the initial step in such evidence based research on the usefulness of CKI as a treatment for cancer. The most critical piece of evidence is the data one gets from well designed and controlled clinical trials in patients.”
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