Cancer Therapy: With a little help from the Far East

28. May 2008

It was considered a bit freaky for a long time, but most of all, the "dark horse" in classic cancer therapy: Traditional Chinese Medicine. Today the elite of German cancer researchers are discovering the potentials of a culture more than 5000 years old - the DKFZ resorts to Chinese healing plants and are now reporting amazing results for the first time.

With the diagnosis comes the bitter realization that the patient actually finished his life already: Just another three to five months is the lifespan of a person diagnosed with malignant melanoma of the choroids – normally. However, active ingredients of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) brought considerable relief for two affected patients: One survived 24 months while the second one was free of symptoms four years after the special "herbal therapy". Obviously, he defeated the cancer.

It would not be appropriate to classify the message in the category ‘dubious reporting’ – it comes straight from the Olympus of local oncologists, the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ, Deutschen Krebsforschungszentrum) in Heidelberg.

Together with his colleagues at the Friedrich-Alexander University in Erlangen, the DKFZ molecular biologist Thomas Efferth used the substance artesunate on two patients with malignant melanoma of the choroids. Because the derivative of the active ingredient artemisinin used in TCM posses a very special feature: In cell cultures it kills off isolated cancer cells. Sounding at first like the promises of a faith healer, it turns out to have a tangible molecular biological background.

Dynamite for the tumor

In the first step, the active ingredient artemisinin in mugwort reacts with the iron accumulating in the cancer cells growing exuberantly. Of course, this step would not extent the lifespan for one minute. Only the then following reaction turns out to be a mighty weapon against the cancer, as the molecular biologist Efferth reports in the DKFZ-owned magazine "Einblick": "If artemisinin meets iron, a chemical reaction follows creating active free radicals". Those oxygen particles obviously attach to the cell membrane of the tumor and thus break it open. Thus, Efferth assumes that artemisinin "works like dynamite on the tumor".

The substance is not an isolated case. Chinese medicine has more than 6,000 healing plants in its repertoire. From a global point of view, more than 250,000 therapeutically active species of plants are available for physicians – if we only knew which ingredient causes what and how.

Exactly this gap of knowledge is what researchers like Efferth here at home are targeting to fill as well as scientists in the motherland of TCM. There the Chinese start where their ancestors supplied the basics of today’s knowledge thousands of years ago.

At the beginning of this millennium, Chinese biotechnologists developed a database, which will be able to connect traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) with the methods of modern genetic technology. Just how the thinking of the old cultures can be transferred to the procedures of our high-tech world shows the Director of the Chinese Humangenom-Center, Chen Zhu, who introduced the database in Shanghai. The decoding of human genetic material by gene technology could also be used to understand the "secret" effects of traditional Chinese medicine.

Sexy – from an oncological point of view

Like once in the old days the leading scientific institutions of China today enjoy the favor of the meritocracy. Massive national support is part of the technical venture of the People’s Republic. About 180 million US-Dollars from government funds flowed into Chinese biotech projects between 1996 and 2002 alone, which include the research of TCM active ingredients. The trend with Western experts is even more tremendous. According to estimations, the amount of incentives for the promising segment of life sciences, which also includes medicine and gene technology as well as biotechnology, has nearly quadrupled.

German medical researchers can only dream of such amount of cash injections. But even so: In the meantime, funds are flowing here in Germany as well for the research of the enormous potential of TCM ingredients. For example, a research team at the DKFZ was able to identify substances from Chinese medicinal herbs capable of overcoming the so-called chemo-resistance of cancer cells. The clou: The herbal substances wogonine and rocaglamide affect other signal paths than conventional chemotherapeutics and seem to even destroy tumors where a classic chemotherapy fails. Another advantage of those potential medications: According to current results, healthy cells are only damaged minimally. After all the German cancer aid (Deutsche Krebshilfe) is supporting the research project with about 418,000 Euro. "Active ingredients isolated from the Chinese medicinal herbs could give new hope in those cases. They make the cancer cells sensitive to the cell-death signal again", explains Professor Peter Krammer, project manager and spokesman of the main research tumor immunology at the DKFZ.

Now the work group wants to take a closer look at rogue cells of the immune system causing leukemia and malignant tumors of the lymphatic system. But what makes this thing really sexy from an oncological researcher’s point of view, the Deutsche Krebshilfe puts in one sentence: "In principle, the active ingredients could also be used on other tumors".

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