Ancient Chinese Formula May Ease Chemotherapy Side Effects

An ancient Chinese brew may help reduce the intestinal damage caused by chemotherapy given to colon and rectal cancer patients, researchers said on Thursday.

To meet growing consumer demands, researchers in the field of traditional medicine are trying to prove the efficacy of ancient drugs using Western-style animal tests and human clinical trials.

In a paper published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers said they fed cancerous mice the Chinese brew after the rodents had been treated with irinotecan, a chemotherapy drug known to be toxic for the gut and a cause of diarrhea.

"The researchers treated cancerous mice with chemotherapy, which shrank tumors but also caused massive destruction in the intestinal lining of the animals," they said in a statement.

"After a few days of treatment with PHY906, the medicine restored the damaged intestinal linings in the mice."

PHY906 is the laboratory formulation of a 1,800-year-old Chinese formula containing peonies, a purple flower called skullcap, licorice and fruit from a buckthorn tree.

Called Huang Qin Tang, the brew has been used for a long time to treat diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

"Irinotecan reduces tumour growth by itself but if you combine with PHY906, it will further reduce tumour growth," said lead author Yung-Chi Cheng at the Yale University School of Medicine in the United States.

"By itself, PHY906 does not decrease tumour growth, it has to be used in combination with chemotherapy."

Colorectal cancer is the third deadliest cancer, after lung and stomach cancer. It caused 639,000 deaths globally in 2004, according to the World Health Organization.

According to the American Cancer Society, the economic impact from colorectal cancer in terms of premature death and disability is $99 billion annually, excluding direct treatment costs.

Cheng said the team has since completed a small clinical trial using the brew on 17 human patients with colorectal cancer.

"The results of the clinical phase 1/2A trial looks promising," Cheng said by telephone, adding that they would be proceeding to a larger clinical trial.

Cheng has a stake in PhytoCeutica, Inc., which develops traditional Chinese medicine into drugs for the treatment of cancer and it holds the license for PHY906.

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