Author: Nicole Baute

An ancient four-herb formula used in China for 1,800 years might one day be available as a prescription pill to treat side effects caused by cancer chemotherapy, thanks to research from Yale University and a growing international consortium focused on the globalization of Chinese medicine.

Huang Qin Tang (pronounced Hu-ang Chin Tong) is made with peonies, a purple flower called skullcap, licorice and fruit from a buckthorn tree. The Chinese medicine has long been used for diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and cramps, which happen to be side effects associated with certain chemotherapy drugs.

Now research led by Yung-Chi “Tommy” Cheng, the Henry Bronson Professor of Pharmacology at Yale University, suggests a Western version of this ancient medicine may reduce gut damage caused by chemotherapy in colon and rectal cancer patients.

Cheng says a capsule preparation of this formula, called PHY906, inhibits three processes that cause inflammation during chemotherapy and enhances the recovery of damage to tissue.

“This is an example of West meeting East for treatment of cancer,” Cheng said, on the phone from Taiwan.

Cheng, who has equity interest in the Yale-sponsored company that licenses the technology, is focused on getting PHY906 licensed as a prescription drug in the U.S. — not as a supplement or alternative.

A study published in Science Traditional Medicine Wednesday explains how PHY906 restored intestinal damage in mice caused by chemotherapy and also helped trigger the replacement of damaged intestinal stem cells with healthy ones.

The drug is now in preliminary clinical trials in the U.S., and Cheng says early results have been encouraging.

The research is part of a growing effort to understand and Westernize Chinese medicine. Canadian researchers are amongst those on their way to Hong Kong for the 9th annual meeting of the Consortium for Globalization of Chinese Medicine, which begins on Monday. Cheng, who grew up in Taiwan, is chairman of the consortium’s board of directors.

Michael Rieder, the CIHR-GSK Chair in Pharmacology at University of Western Ontario and the university’s representative to the consortium, has been following — and occasionally critiquing — Cheng’s groundbreaking research.

“I’m a classical Western pharmacologist skeptical of a lot of stuff, so I said, ‘I want to see the proof in the pudding,’ ” Rieder said. “And this combination seems to be very effective. It’s been subject to rigorous testing, and it seems to be very useful as an adjunct to therapy for cancer.”

McMaster University will officially join the Consortium for Globalization of Chinese Medicine next week, becoming the second Canadian university involved.

Stephen Sagar, a professor of oncology at McMaster University specializing in radiation oncology, said technology made it possible for Cheng to split the herbs up into their chemical components, which helped him understand the chemicals that make Huang Qin Tang effective while ensuring consistency and quality.

For the past 15 years Sagar and his McMaster University colleague Raimond Wong have been researching Chinese medicine and its potential implications for cancer treatment. They are currently running a cross-North America trial on the effectiveness of acupuncture on treating xerostomia or dry mouth, a common side effect of chemo for head and neck cancers.

Rieder said the consortium’s aim is adjunctive therapy — Chinese medicine and Western science working together.

“The Western medicine is providing the cutting edge in terms of cure and killing disease, but the Chinese medicine is helping the patient tolerate it better and maybe helping the Western medicine work better,” he said.