Can Ginseng Fight Cancer?

In a new research effort, a University of Chicago team will investigate to what extent ginseng can kill cancer cells and will identify the herb's active biochemicals that may be responsible. In another project, the researchers will undertake to learn how ginseng extracts may alter tumor cells' gene expression. And in a third study, they will focus on how ginseng affects the intracellular signals that determine cell growth and death.

These three projects will become reality through a $6 million grant over five years from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) to the University of Chicago Medical Center. NCCAM is a division of the federal National Institutes of Health.

The funds will launch the Center for Herbal Research on Colorectal Cancer, which will initially probe the possible pharmacological benefits of two types of ginseng: American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) and notoginseng (Panax notoginseng).

 American ginseng was once widespread in the eastern United States, but, due to overharvesting, is now rare. Notoginseng is found in China and Japan. Both are perennials, and generally the roots are used in medications for an array of disorders, including colorectal 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, 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 research on herbs is "still in its infancy," he said, having been long neglected by biomedical investigators. "Considering their widespread use, the time has come to apply contemporary research principles and techniques to the study of botanical medications." Colorectal cancer, the focus of the center, is the third most common form of cancer and the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States.


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