Yale Researchers Look To Ancient Remedy To Fight Side Effects of Chemotherapy

1,800-year-old Herbal Recipe Fights Side Effects of Chemotherapy


The Hartford Courant

August 23, 2010

BY WILLIAM WEIR, bweir@courant.com

8:22 p.m. EDT, August 18, 2010

Yale researchers have developed a medication based on a Chinese herbal recipe more than 1,800 years old to counteract the adverse effects of chemotherapy.

The medicine, called PHY906, would relieve the gastrointestinal side effects of a common chemotherapy drug known as CPT-11, but not the drug's effectiveness in fighting cancer cells. Yung-Chi Cheng, a professor of pharmacology at Yale and the paper's senior author, calls the medication "a marriage of Western and Eastern approaches to the treatment of cancer."

CPT-11 (also known as Irinotecan) is commonly prescribed with other chemotherapy agents. Its side effects can include a number of gastrointestinal ailments that often are treated with several different medications, with mixed results. Researchers said PHY906 tackles multiple side effects partly by reducing inflammation and creating new intestinal cells.

The medication was tested on mice that were undergoing chemotherapy. Those that were administered PHY906 showed less weight loss and more anti-tumor activity. Not only did it not compromise the chemotherapy medication's effectiveness, the researchers noted, it enhanced it.

"Herbal medicines, composed of multiple biologically active compounds, are widely claimed to help a variety of diseases," the researchers write in the paper, which was published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. "However, they have not been fully accepted by mainstream medicine because of the complex nature of the formulae, as well as a lack of stringent quality control."

PHY906 is derived from a combination of four plants called Huang Qin Tang, which was first described in Chinese medical literature about 1,800 years ago. Still used today, it is given to treat such gastrointestinal symptoms as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. The researchers say the method they've developed allows the formula to be prepared to exact standards.

Cheng, who also is co-chairman of the Consortium for the Globalization of Chinese Medicine, has spent several years incorporating traditional Chinese remedies into modern medicine. He's not the only one. A paper published in the June issue of Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, noted that there has been an increased effort to find new medications based on Chinese herbal remedies to counteract the side effects of synthetic drugs.

Michael Jarvis, editor of the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, says it makes sense that pharmacology researchers have been looking for the medicinal properties in natural sources, especially those with a "well-documented folklore and history" of working.

"Anyone interested in experimental medicine would be highly motivated to see of they can isolate the active ingredient and make it work better," he said. "The challenge of it is figuring out the science behind some of these remedies — do they actually work in controlled medicinal trials?"

Nathan Bryan, who teaches molecular medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, agreed that research into eastern medicine has been "gaining traction" among Western researchers.

"Primarily, it's people who are fed up with modern drugs," he said. "The medicinal properties of plants were recognized long before we were civilized here in the U.S."

Cheng developed the drug for the New Haven-based pharmaceutical developer PhytoCeutica, which he co-founded.

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