alternative approaches

Researching Treatments

When it comes to alternative therapies for cancer, the internet is a “mixed bag” filled with exaggerated claims, unreliable anecdotes, and some very credible reports. For the patient who has little time and who needs reliable information now, sorting through this can be a challenge. There is, however, one resource that is arguably better than many others. Medline is the National Library of Medicine’s bibliographic database covering the fields of medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, the health care system, and the preclinical sciences. Medline contains over 12 million citations and abstracts (summaries of research articles) from more than 4,800 biomedical journals published in the United States and 70 other countries. Medline is accessible from your computer via PubMed , which was developed by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). Simply type www.pubmed.gov in your browser. Through Medline you can see what has been published about alternative cancer therapies by scientists and researchers. For anyone trying to make an informed treatment decision, these studies are worth browsing.

For example, certain herbs have been used throughout history for the treatment of various cancers. Because natural substances are difficult to patent, drug companies will not invest money to research and develop these substances. Nonetheless, you can find a handful of studies for almost any herb, vitamin or other substance you may be looking for. Although these studies are obviously not the final word, they do provide clues about the potential efficacy of these agents in cancer. While most of these studies are pre-clinical (in test-tubes, animal models), some are clinical (in patients). Faced with the hyperbole on the internet and the skepticism of most orthodox doctors, these studies can also be used to facilitate objective discussions with your physician.

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There are three suggested steps to accessing this information:

  • Run a search by placing terms like the name of the herb or vitamin and cancer. For example, “red clover and breast cancer” or “vitamin c and prostate cancer” or “carrots and lung cancer.” If nothing appears, try the Latin name.
  • Understand what you are reading. While it is advantageous to read the entire article (often available in your local medical library), abstracts of the article are a good place to begin. And while, there are many considerations in assessing an article’s reliability (i.e. journal, authors, conflicts of interest, size of study, etc.) for the purpose of getting started, you can begin by focusing on three key pieces of information:

1. What substance was tested?

You want to know what was actually tested. For example, some studies do not use the entire natural product, but only employ one or more chemical components that are isolated or synthesized. A problem with this approach is that all the components may have a synergistic effect and administering one ingredient may not be a fair test of what the agent can really do in patients.

2. Where was it tested?

There are many ways a test can be performed. For example, preclinical testing can be performed in cancer cell cultures (in vitro) which are cultures of cancer cells taken from a patient. Or, it can be performed in a cell line (a cancer cell culture that has been grown and used for years or decades). Or, it can be performed in animals (with animal cancers or human cancers). Or, the test can be performed clinically by administering the agent to actual cancer patients. Of course, the last one would be the most accurate representation of whether the agent works in people.

3. What was the outcome?

Here, you want to know what happened. Key terms to look for include apoptosis (this means the cancer cells committed cell suicide) anti-proliferation, and growth inhibition.

Some examples can be found below. (Please note that Cancer Monthly does not endorse the use of any of these substances for the treatment of your cancer, but encourages you to perform reliable research in order to make informed treatment decisions with your licensed healthcare provider).

Example 1

What was tested: Pau d’Arco is the inner bark of the Tabebuia avellanedae tree. It has been used for centuries by the Indio tribes of South America to treat a wide range of conditions including pain, arthritis, inflammation of the prostate gland (prostatitis), fever, dysentery, boils and ulcers, and various cancers. In this study, the researchers tested beta-lapachone which is a component of Pau d’arco.

Tested in: Cultured human prostate cells.

Result: Growth inhibition and induction of apoptosis in a dose-dependent manner.

Translation: They used only one component of the herb (beta-lapachone) and they tested in it in prostate cancer cells, not prostate cancer patients. The cancer cell stopped growing. This is evidence that these components work in prostate cancer cells (not necessarily patients).

Reference: Lee JH, et al., Down-regulation of cyclooxygenase-2 and telomerase activity by beta-lapachone in human prostate carcinoma cells. Pharmacol Res. 2005 Jun;51(6):553-60.

Example 2

What was tested: Red clover (Trifolium pretense), a wild plant used as grazing food for cattle and other livestock, has been used medicinally to treat a wide array of conditions. Here they tested Red Clover derived dietary isoflavones containing a mixture of genistein, daidzein, formononetin, and biochanin A.

Tested in: Prostate cancer patients.

Result: Apoptosis in radical prostatectomy specimens from treated patients was significantly higher than control subjects.

Translation: They used a variety of the components from Red Clover and they administered it to real patients. The fact that apoptosis was greater in the treated patients (those who received the herb’s components) is an indicator of potential efficacy in actual prostate cancer patients.

Reference: Jarred RA, et al., Induction of apoptosis in low to moderate-grade human prostate carcinoma by red clover-derived dietary isoflavones. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002 Dec;11(12):1689-96.

Example 3

What was tested: Cat’s Claw (Uncaria tomentosa) is a tropical vine that grows in South America . This vine gets its name from the small thorns at the base of the leaves, which looks like a cat’s claw. It has been used in South-American folk medicine for the treatment of cancer, arthritis, gastritis and epidemic diseases. In this study, extracts were used.

Tested in: Human breast cancer cell line

Result: Antiproliferative effect and a 90% inhibition at a concentration of 100 mg/ml.

Translation: Extracts (not the whole plant) were used in a human breast cancer cell line (not cells taken from a recent patient). There were significant anti-proliferative effects which means that the extracts worked in this cell line.

Reference: Riva L, et al., The antiproliferative effects of Uncaria tomentosa extracts and fractions on the growth of breast cancer cell line. Anticancer Res. 2001 Jul-Aug;21(4A):2457-61.

Example 4

What was tested: Curcumin (also called Tumeric) is a yellow powder ground from the root of a plant (Curcuma longa) of the ginger family, which is found wild in the Himalayas and grown across South Asia . In this study they used the whole herb.

Tested in: Patients with bladder cancer or pre-malignant lesions

Result: Histologic improvement in some patients with the precancerous lesions.

Translation: Whole herb (root) was tested in a variety of patients and there was some efficacy in the patients who had pre-malignant cancer.

Reference: Cheng AL, et al., Phase I clinical trial of curcumin, a chemopreventive agent, in patients with high-risk or pre-malignant lesions. Anticancer Res. 2001 Jul-Aug;21(4B):2895-900.

Example 5

What was tested: Vitamin C plasma levels.

Tested in: Patients with advanced cancer.

Result: Patients with low plasma concentrations of vitamin C have a shorter survival.

Translation: In patients with a variety of different advanced cancers, patients with less Vitamin C in their plasma (i.e. blood) did not live as long as those patients who had more.

Reference: Mayland CR, et al., Vitamin C deficiency in cancer patients. Palliat Med. 2005 Jan;19(1):17-20.

Again, these studies are not the last word, but when searching for reliable information on the internet, browsing what is published in medical and scientific journals by using Medline is a good place to begin. We encourage you to take advantage of this comprehensive resource to help make informed treatment decisions with your licensed healthcare provider.

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