Power in numbers

Yung-Chi Cheng had a hunch that a traditional Chinese herbal blend known as huang qin tang might help ease the gastrointestinal side effects of certain harsh chemotherapy drugs. The four-herb blend has been used for centuries to treat stomach ailments.

Cheng, a professor of pharmacology at the medical school, didn't expect the herbs to help fight cancer. But that's what several recent studies have shown. In a small study of human subjects, and in larger studies using mice, Cheng and his collaborators have shown that the combination of traditional chemotherapy and a version of the herbal blend manufactured for the trial improved not just the intense side effects of the treatment (which are sometimes fatal), but the size of target tumors. Cheng is now seeking funding for a larger trial of human subjects, which could lead to FDA approval.

Cheng has been slowly working on this herb research for 12 years. His most recent paper, which explained how the combination influences intestinal toxicity and inflammation in mice with metastatic colon cancer, was published in Science Translational Medicine. A key to the paper's scientific rigor was a manufacturing method that ensured uniform doses of herbal medicine. Cheng helped develop that technique and is a part owner of the company that makes the drug.

Cheng says he hopes the research paves the way for further inquiries into multi-chemical medicines—"a new paradigm for drug development." Most drugs are made from one chemical, which targets one biological pathway for disease. The herb treatment demonstrates that sometimes multiple chemicals are better than one. Early in his research, he looked at how each of the four herbs in the mix worked with the chemotherapy drug—and none alone improved either side effects or tumor size.

"Any one of those herbs is no good," Cheng says. "All four herbs are medicine."  

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