The world of Western conventional medicine is oriented to the ‘magic bullet’ paradigm, where the search for drugs relies on the concept of compounds that bind specifically to a single target and demonstrate a high degree of potency. Recently, however, this approach has broadened, with researchers suggesting the effort to target multiple pathways at once is far more effective and efficient.
Traditional herbal medicine recognized centuries ago that combining many plants delivers far better results than relying on a single plant. This is true both for supporting health and vitality and for treating imbalances and diseases. The multi-component nature inherent in medicinal herbs makes them particularly suitable for managing the multitude of issues that present in complex diseases such as cancer. This offers great potential for synergistic actions, including interactions between botanicals and the relationship of botanicals to conventional cytotoxic drugs such as chemotherapy and targeted agents. While often viewed as traditional folk medicine by western practitioners, more evidence is suggesting this multiple pathway process may be the key to disease management (1, 2, 3).
There is a disadvantage, however. Strict reproducibility of each individual's results may vary. Where a combination of 6 herbs and 20 pathways help one person's diabetes, it may help another person's lipid intake. This all depends on each other's individual biochemistry. This being said, it is much more efficient, safe, and cost effective if you are able to find which ones have 1) enough research to prove efficacy and 2) if they work for you, specifically.
With all of the diseases in the world, the one that keeps the most headlines is that of cancer. Having one of the largest death rates of any of the disease, with minimal cure possibilities, it has always shuttered the minds of those who have experience cancer throughout family and loved ones.
The Origins of Herbal Medicines for Healing Cancer
Herbal medicine has been the foundation of treatment for human maladies for millennia. It continues to be an essential part of culturally based healing traditions in many cultures worldwide. As our respect for botanical medicine has grown, numerous herbs, including those traditionally used in Chinese medicine, are being incorporated as remedies for disease management and treatment in Western countries (4).
Consider the following:
Because botanicals contain a variety of organic chemical complexes, they usually act on multiple targets. A potential advantage of phytochemicals is that they may act through multiple pathways, thus reducing the development of resistance by cancer cells (7). Botanical medicine does not have single effects, nor does it have a high degree of potency, but rather is pleotrophic, (relatively weak compared to that of western drugs). Therefore, they assist rather than control, and often act in an amphoteric, symphonic way. This means they are able to not only do different things in different situations, but even to have the opposite effect, depending on the circumstances.
Botanical, as well as natural dietary compounds, have drawn a great deal of attention as potential cancer preventive agents because of their wide margin of safety. However, single agent intervention has failed to bring the expected outcome in clinical trials; therefore, combinations of botanicals and natural dietary compounds are gaining increasing popularity (8).
Botanical preparations include crude herbs, herbal tinctures, fluid extracts, powdered concentrated whole herb extracts, standardized herbal extracts, and herbal isolates. Botanical compounds, even as isolates, differ from drugs in that rather than blocking pathways or receptors, they tend to “take the edge off” just enough to reduce excessive amplification. The result is that there is still plenty of activity for normal response and cellular activity. They are also capable of up-regulating protective pathways, targeting tumor cells, enhancing immune activity, and functioning as selective redox-antioxidants. This induces oxidative damage to cancer cells while protecting the health of normal cells. Botanical compounds also reduce mutagenicity of many of the main players in oncogene and tumor suppressor gene mutation, such as the p53 tumor suppressor gene.
Integrating Botanicals with Conventional Medicine In The Treatment Of Cancer
Today, the mindset is shifting in the way we view cancer and in the ways cancer is treated, even with conventional drugs. The basis of using multi-drug therapy is the recognition that for each disease process, there is more than one mechanism and gene involved. For example, in pancreatic cancer, in the great majority of cell types there is a global genomic analysis that demonstrates at least 12 partially overlapping processes that are genetically altered. Even if you do find the “needle in the haystack” or a “driver” rather than a “passenger” in regard to the cancer, there are a multitude of “co-conspirators”, and the cancer intellect is continually mutating to gain an edge for strength, control, proliferation and metastasis. The pathways that are altered, both intra and extra cellular, as well as in the membrane in any individual tumor, vary widely. This has been documented in all cancers, and in particular Glioblastoma multiforme, which is the most common and lethal type of brain cancer (9). This is why a multi-targeted approach is necessary and the basis for how botanicals can provide a significant advantage.
Molecular targets in colorectal cancer that are upregulated by natural compounds
[Illustrations: Bharat Aggarwal, Sahdeo Prasad, et. al, Prevention and Treatment of Colorectal Cancer by Natural Agents From Mother Nature, Curr Colorectal Cancer Rep. Mar 1, 2013; 9(1): 37–56.]
There is currently a great deal of research worldwide investigating the potential of botanicals in the treatment of cancer. For example, PHY906, a combination of four herbs; Scutellaria baicalensis, Glycyrrhiza uralensis, Paeonia lactiflora, and Ziziphus jujube, which have a history of use in traditional Chinese medicine for over 1800 years. These botanicals have been shown to enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy while decreasing chemotherapy-related toxicities and side effects of anticancer agents in various cancers. The PHY906 clinical program consists of five trials in three different types of cancers in both the United States and Taiwan. To date, approximately 150 subjects have received PHY906 in combination with chemotherapy in these five clinical studies (10). A recent trial found that Capecitabine (Xeloda) plus PHY906 provides a safe and feasible salvage therapy in patients with advanced pancreatic cancer who were previously treated and failed with gemcitabine-based regimens (11). In a recent mouse model, PHY906 decreased the toxicity of abdominal irradiation without protecting tumors and thereby increased the therapeutic ratio (12).
Botanical Synergy As a Pleotropic Force Against Cancer
One thing to keep in mind is that everything in the body is in flux, in a trophic yin-yang responsive state that is modulating and adaptive. Drugs cannot adapt in this way, but herbs do when practiced in a traditional way. Although there is certainly a place for concentrated active compounds (single or groups of compounds), the efficacy of most natural medicines lies in the synergy of diverse components rather than a single compound (13).
When an extracellular signaling molecule activates a cell surface receptor, signal transduction occurs. This process involves the numerous actions of cellular messengers. Though different constituents may affect various cellular messengers, the same response may appear in a cell. On the other hand, different agents may regulate the same target, and therefore cooperate in an agonistic, synergistic way.
For example, Chinese coptis (Coptis chinensis) root was used for thousands of years in TCM for clearing heat as well as purging fire, resolving phlegm to activate meridians, promoting blood circulation to remove blood stasis, and for removing dampness.
The pharmacologically active constituents of coptis consist mainly of alkaloids, including palmatine, berberine, epiberberine, coptisine, and jatrorrhizine, which exhibit anti-hyperglycemic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and cancer inhibiting activity. A recent study concluded that as potential adjuvants to chemotherapy for non-small cell lung cancer, coptis (COP) extract and berberine (BER) increase selective cancer cell reactive oxygen species production, reduce multidrug resistance (MDR), and enhance the inhibitory effects of chemotherapeutic agents against cancer cell growth. Both COP and BER significantly inhibited A549 cell growth in a dose-dependent manner. Combinations of COP or BER with chemotherapeutic agents (fluorouracil, camptothecin, and paclitaxel) exhibited a stronger inhibitory effect on A549 cell growth (14). Although berberine (sulfate) is a very effective botanical isolate, its therapeutic value, including anti-microbial activity, is potentiated by other compounds in the plant such as the MDR inhibitor, 5-methoxyhydnocarpin, which does not have anti-microbial activity on its own. This study showed that coptis (Huanglian) extract may have greater therapeutic effects than berberine alone and may be the result of the synergistic actions of other components present in coptis.
A second consideration is that diseases such as cancer have many contributing factors including viral, environmental, behavioral, and metabolic, as well as inherited factors. The evolutionary origin of synergy in natural medicines, such as in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), offers a strategy that not only utilizes whole plants with a multitude of synergistic compounds, but also uses formulations that involve several plants. Through centuries of use, traditional healers found that this approach was superior to single-agent strategies in combating both simple and complex diseases. They understood that within a single plant are many active synergetic compounds that enhance the physiological effects of the plant. In addition, while an isolated compound within a plant may have some toxicity, there are often compounds within the same plant that neutralize toxicity.
For instance, polyphenols and terpenoids are two groups of constituents which are contained in many herbal extracts; the former possess a strong binding ability to different molecular structures like proteins or glycoproteins, while the latter have great affinities for cell membranes and therefore, a high potential to permeate through cell walls of the body or bacteria, or perhaps cancer cells (15, 16).
Combining herbs for medicinal use is a time-honored art and science that has been practiced for thousands of years in the ancient healing traditions of China, India, Japan, Brazil and many other parts of the world. Advanced traditional medicines consider combining herbs into formulations to be one of the most important and subtle arts of medicinal knowledge.
With this "time-honored" art and science, comes experience of which combinations work for specific maladies. With the advent of numerous technological advantages, we are now able to see specific mechanisms of actions as well as the genetic changes that happen with these combinations.
With our Infinimin® Ultravitamin, Infiniderm® Daily Youth Lotion, and NaturoCleanse™ products, we are able to show the specific mechanisms of action that we are impacting with our fucoidans, beta-glucans, and related compounds. In Figure 1 below, is a typical set of those reactions and how these interact and have synergies in our immune system. While this can help us visualize what is going on in our bodies, it is still the tip of the "iceberg" in terms of knowledge of how these compounds work together and candidly, we are still in development of true understanding (17).
With these overall synergies, one must think about how to "test" the multiple pathways. Again, as our typical style of medicine has been to remove varibles, test, then add variables, we tend forget the process of what we are doing. We should, in essence measure and observe natural processes as they happen, not break them down and build back up. Some of the best historically know medicinal combinations have been in teas and they are a classic example of combining multiple components for an effect. Combinations with green tea like reishi mushroom (ganoderma lucidum), ginger, honey, and chamomile have used as traditional medicinal teas for centuries. Did you know those same combinations have been used in alcoholic drinks as well. A recent study, showing "Medicinal Whiskey" with Reishi (ganoderma lucidum) has gone so far as to use genetic expression and see how Reishi Whiskey affects specific genes and their expression levels. This unique study took the typcial amount of an individual who drinks Reishi Whiskey and performed a Affymetrix gene expression analysis - basically seeing how the genes turn on/off after being consumed. An astonishing 11,000 genes had statistically significant changes in their expression levels with Reishi Whiskey. What was more impressive was that they largely turned "ON" apoptosis pathways - these are the pathways that induce cell death - in this case, many of them are related to promotion of cancer cell growth - therefore, turning these off would kill cancer cells!! An impressive graphic is below of how these seemed to work together and turn off cancer cell growth (18).
With this interesting set of studies, one would wonder how these would fair with typical chemotherapy treatment - as most western medicine practitioners would recommend not to be on supplements or antioxidants during chemotherapy. Scientifically, they are right. However, interesting new research appears to show that fucoidan (from seaweed) actually helps promote chemotherapy. In this study, three chemotherapy drugs typically used for breast cancer were used either alone or with combination of fucoidan. We have separately reported about the effects of fucoidan and chemotherapy before, but felt as though they seemed to fit and "synergize" with this topic. Amazingly, all three chemotherapeutic drugs were enhanced when complemented with fucoidan. More amazing, by their data, fucoidan alone was good, if not better than the chemotherapy options alone, and it has no side effects (see image below) (19).
Finally, in another study, using gandomera lucidum (Reishi), seemed to show that same effect, combined with yet a fourth breast cancer chemotherapy drug, Erlotinib.
Their results showed that ganoderm lucidum (GLE) synergizes with Erlotinib (ERL) to decrease cancer cell viability, proliferation, migration and invasion. They conclude to say that this combinatorial therapeutic approach may be the best way to increase prognosis in breast cancer patients with EGFR overexpressing tumors (20).
So, synergy appears to not just be coming from natural sources but also appear to work alongside our western medical approaches as well. We hope that we can continue these new advances in medicine as they show us more of the promise of our natural world and the potential for alleviating health and disease.
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Fucoidan extract enhances the anti-cancer activity of chemotherapeutic agents in breast cancer cells. Zhang, et. al
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