Colon Cancer and Red Yeast Rice

Red Yeast RiceFor centuries, people in Asia have eaten Chinese red yeast rice and used it for medicinal purposes. Western scientists have recently caught on to the idea that this natural therapy, which is made by fermenting the red yeast that grows on rice, might have health benefits.

Chinese red yeast rice contains compounds called monacolins. One of these compounds, monacolin K, has the same makeup as the cholesterol-lowering drug, lovastatin (Mevacor). In fact, studies have indicated that Chinese red yeast rice is very effective at lowering cholesterol. 

Researchers at UCLA wondered whether red yeast rice might also be useful for preventing cancer. “We know that lovastatin decreases blood cholesterol, but it also has an anti-inflammation effect, and inflammation is a primary risk factor in colon cancer development,” explains Mee Young Hong, MD, who was a research fellow in the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition when she worked on the study, and is now assistant professor at San Diego State University. “We thought that red yeast rice, which contains a natural source of lovastatin, might help with cancer prevention.” Past research has found that cancerous tumors need cholesterol to grow, and studies have shown that people who take statins have a reduced risk of colon cancer.

Dr. Hong and her colleagues compared the effects of different Chinese red yeast rice formulations with the drug lovastatin on colon cancer cells in a laboratory.* The red yeast rice triggered tumor cell death, and it reduced tumor cell growth by as much as 41%--an even greater reduction than with lovastatin. Even a formulation of red yeast rice that did not contain monacolin K inhibited colon cancer cells to a lesser degree, a finding that suggests that red yeast rice affects cancer cells independently of monacolin K. It’s possible that pigments, isoflavones, or other active ingredients in the red yeast rice might also inhibit cancer growth.

Before you rush out and buy red yeast rice supplements in the hope of protecting yourself from colon cancer, please note that this research is very preliminary. Also, there is concern about some of the Chinese red yeast rice supplements being marketed in this country. In August, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) warned consumers to avoid three products: Cholestrix (Sunburst Biorganics), Red Yeast Rice and Red Yeast Rice/Policosonal Complex (Swanson Healthcare Products, Inc.), because they contain lovastatin. Even though these are natural supplements, according to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, once a substance has been approved as a new drug, it cannot be sold as a dietary supplement. Chinese red yeast rice supplements have the potential to cause side effects similar to statins, including liver damage and muscle weakness. It is always advisable to speak to a professional clinician trained in the use of vitamins and herbs before taking any supplements.

For now, researchers are continuing to investigate Chinese red yeast rice to discover the mechanism by which it works, and to find out if might also be effective against other types of cancers. “I am currently testing the effects of Chinese red yeast rice on prostate cancer in animals at UCLA,” Dr. Hong says. “Studies in the laboratory have so far been very promising.”

* Hong, Mee Young, et al. Anticancer effects of Chinese red yeast rice versus monacolin K alone on colon cancer cells. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, September 12, 2007 (Epub).

Other Sources:

U.S. Food & Drug Administration. “FDA Warns Consumers to Avoid Red Yeast Rice Products Promoted on Internet as Treatments for High Cholesterol.” August 9, 2007.

Buchwald, H., et al. Cholesterol inhibition, cancer, and chemotherapy. The Lancet, 1992;339:1154-1156.

Poynter, JN, et al. Statins and the risk of colorectal cancer. New England Journal of Medicine, 2005;352:2184-92.

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