$6 million NIH grant supports research on cancer-fighting properties of ginseng

October 20, 2008

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) has awarded $6 million over five years to the University of Chicago Medical Center to create the Center for Herbal Research on Colorectal Cancer (CHRCC), one of four new Centers of Excellence for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine funded by NCCAM this year.

Researchers in the CHRCC 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, MD, PhD, 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 colleagues Tong-Chuan He, MD, Ph.D., associate professor of surgery, and Wei Du, PhD, associate professor in Ben May Department for Cancer Research, 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 He, will focus on how ginseng extracts alter gene expression in tumor cells. Project 3, led by Du, will concentrate on how ginseng manipulates the internal signals that cells use to regulate cell growth and cell death. He and Du are also members of the Tang Center.

The researchers have considerable experience applying scientific techniques to the study of herbal medicine. 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 the Editor-in-Chief of The American Journal of Chinese Medicine and is the primary Editor of the Textbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The Federal Government's lead agency for scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine, NCCAM, one component of the National Institutes of Health, now supports 11 Centers of Excellence for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CERCs). NCCAM's CERC program selects highly accomplished researchers across a variety of disciplines to apply cutting-edge technology to projects in complementary and alternative medicine.

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