American Ginseng Studied as a Cancer Fighter

CHICAGO, Illinois, October 24, 2008 (ENS) - The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has awarded $6 million over five years to the University of Chicago Medical Center to study the anti-cancer properties of American ginseng.

The funds will be used to create the Center for Herbal Research on Colorectal Cancer, one of four new centers of excellence funded by NCCAM this year. The federal government's lead agency for scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine, NCCAM is one component of the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers at the new center will apply scientific techniques to the study of herbal medicine. They will study the anti-tumor effects of different preparations of the herbs American ginseng, Panax quinquefolius, and notoginseng, Panax notoginseng, which are widely used but little-studied herbal therapies for a variety of ailments, including prevention and treatment of colon cancer.

"At least one-third of adults in the United States use some sort of dietary supplement and many of them take herbal remedies, such as ginseng, to supplement or substitute for conventional pharmacotherapy," said center director Chun-Su Yuan, M.D., Ph.D., the Cyrus Tang Professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago, "yet we know very little about how, when or even if these products are beneficial."

Scientific investigation of herbs is "still in its infancy," he said, lagging far behind current trends in biomedical research. "Considering their widespread use, the time has come to apply contemporary research principles and techniques to the study of botanical medications."

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer and the second leading cause of cancer-related death in the United States. If detected early, it can be successfully treated, but patients with advanced colon cancer have a poor prognosis.

Yuan, a recognized expert in herbal medicine studies and director of the University of Chicago's Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research, will work with Tang Center colleagues on three separate but interrelated projects designed to characterize the anti-tumor activities and mechanisms of action of the two types of ginseng and their active constituents.

Project 1, led by Yuan, will study the ability of ginseng to kill cancer cells and identify herbal constituents responsible for tumor cell death.

Project 2, led by Tong-Chuan He, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of surgery, will focus on how ginseng extracts alter gene expression in tumor cells.

Project 3, led by Wei Du, Ph.D., associate professor in Ben May Department for Cancer Research, will concentrate on how ginseng manipulates the internal signals that cells use to regulate cell growth and cell death.

Panax quinquefolius is a perennial herb in the ivy family that is native to eastern North America, though it also cultivated beyond its range in places such as China.

The plant's forked root and leaves were traditionally used for medicinal purposes by Native Americans. Since the 1800s, the roots have been collected and sold to Chinese or Hong Kong traders, who pay high prices for old, wild roots.

American Ginseng was formerly particularly widespread in the Appalachian and Ozark regions and forested regions of Pennsylvania and New York state, but the wild plant has been overharvested, and is now rare in most parts of the United States.

Notoginseng grows naturally in China and Japan. The herb is a perennial with dark green leaves branching from a stem with a red cluster of berries in the middle. It is both cultivated and gathered from wild forests, with wild plants being the most valuable.

The University of Chicago's Tang Center for Herbal Medicine Research, founded in 2000, has focused on scientifically verifying the effects of herbs, including those have been used in the Far East for centuries and are now becoming more popular in the United States. Researchers there have already uncovered some possible benefits as well as serious side effects of herbal remedies.

Yuan, director of the Tang Center, has published more than 100 papers on herbal research, serves as editor in chief of "The American Journal of Chinese Medicine" and is the primary editor of the "Textbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicine."

{Photo: Ginseng roots for sale at Namdaemun market, Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by E. Wahrlich)}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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