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Study Shows How Chinese Medicine Kills Cancer Cells

Researchers at the University of Adelaide have shown how a complex mix of plant compounds derived from ancient clinical practice in China works to kill cancer cells.

Compound kushen injection (CKI) is approved for use in China to treat various cancer tumors, usually as an adjunct to Western chemotherapy-but how it works has not been known.

This study, published in the journal Oncotarget, is one of the first to characterize the molecular action of a traditional Chinese medicine rather than break it down to its constituent parts.

“Most traditional Chinese medicine[s] are based on hundreds or thousands of years of experience with their use in China,” said study leader David Adelson, PhD. “There is often plenty of evidence that these medicines have a therapeutic benefit, but there isn’t the understanding of how or why. If we broke down and tested the components of many traditional Chinese medicines, we would find that individual compounds don’t have much activity on their own. It’s the combination of compounds which can be effective, and potentially means few side-effects as well.”

The researchers used a systems biology approach to look at extracts from the roots of two medicinal herbs, kushen and baituling. Instead of focusing on a single variable, they tried to take into account all aspects of the system. They also identified genes and biological pathways targeted by CKI.

“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,” said 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.”

Adelson said this technique could be used to analyze the molecular mechanisms of other traditional Chinese medicines, potentially opening their way for use in Western medicine.

This article was based on information provided by the University of Adelaide.