U of C to study alternative cancer cures

Three University professors received a grant last week to found a new center to study the effects of two types of ginseng on cancers of the colon, rectum, and appendix.

By Asher Klein

A new grant may signal the University’s increased commitment to alternative medicine.

Three University professors received a grant last week to found a new Center for Herbal Research on Colorectal Cancer (CHRCC) to study the effects of two types of ginseng on cancers of the colon, rectum, and appendix. The $6 million grant, to be used over five years, was awarded by the National Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).

The three recipients, professors Chun-Su Yuan, Tong-Chuan He, and Wei Du, are members of the University’s Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research, which Yuan directs. They will work on three related projects that test the ability of two types of ginseng, ginseng and notoginseng, to combat cancer.

“It’s great,” He said. “It’s a very hard time to receive a grant.”

The projects will aim to study the effects of various ginseng compounds on cancer, which is “probably one of the most commonly used supplemental herbs,” He said.

The compounds “have a long history of being used on humans, mostly in Asia,” where its reputation makes it out to be a kind of cure-all, he said, noting the diverse effects of ginseng.

“Sometimes with [ginseng’s chemical components], depending on how you isolate them, you’ll get slightly different biological effects. Some will be used for anti-diabetic purposes, some are used for cardiovascular purposes, but we’re focused on the anti-cancer stuff,” he said.

The grant comes as part of a larger trend of the University receiving government funding for innovative medical research. Last year the National Institute of Health, the umbrella agency that funds the NCCAM, gave $8 million to four University professors for “promising but unconventional research,” according to a press release, as well as a $23 million grant to create a center to “transform how clinical and translational research is conducted.”

The University’s new cancer center is part of a larger NCCAM initiative to set up four new Centers for Excellence for Research on Complementary (CERC) and Alternative Medicine. The other three centers will study the effects of meditation on the regulation of emotion, metabolism and the immune system, as well as how various botanical extracts affect infectious and inflammatory diseases.

Herbal medicine is not traditionally a topic of study in academia, which isn’t lost on the researchers.

The Tang Center homepage notes, “One out of three Americans uses herbal therapies. Yet, less than one out of 3,000 scientific studies focuses on this increasingly popular therapy. Investigators at the Tang Center are changing that.”

The fact that an alternative medicine project is receiving this large government grant during a tough fiscal year may be an indication that the government is dedicating itself to the field more than in years past.

The researchers are making an effort to emphasize that their work is a hypothesis-driven study—which has not always been the case with projects that receive NCCAM grants—garnering criticism for the organization for not being sufficiently scientific, and weakening the results of the studies they funded. Tong acknowledged that “there are issues about it, about herbal medicine in general,” but said that their project will be a “thorough, comprehensive study.”

On its website, the University Hospital lists surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy as treatments for colorectal cancer but makes no mention of herbal medicine. However, Tong noted that some types of common chemotherapy are derived from natural sources, implying that they could be derived from ginseng as well.

Colorectal cancer, commonly referred as colon cancer, is the “third most common cancer and the third leading cause of cancer-related death,” according to a statement put out by the NCCAM last Tuesday.

The University professors will use animals to test the effects compounds isolated from the roots of two species of ginseng grown in Wisconsin, hoping this will lead to clinical trials on humans.

“This herb has demonstrated it’s fairly safe, and some people can take it at an earlier age, starting at maybe 30 or 40 as a supplement like a multivitamin,” Tong said.

According to Tong, researchers in Asia have already isolated a compound from ginseng, RG3, which has been shown to have positive effects on cancer.

“But RG3 is very expensive to isolate. And in our studies, we’ve found some compounds that may be even more potent,” he said.