Chinese Herbs - More Research Needed

ResearcherTo ease treatment symptoms and improve quality of life, many cancer patients turn to Chinese herbs and other complementary remedies. Research conducted so far on complementary treatments has not been thorough enough to prove any benefits or identify potential side effects, according to a recent study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine.

Up to 91 percent of cancer patients say they have tried at least one complementary therapy, particularly Chinese medicinal herbs. Although many people who use herbal remedies are under the impression that these treatments are natural and therefore safe, some herbs can have side effects, and they may interact with other medications, potentially decreasing their effectiveness.

Human clinical trials can help illuminate the benefits and risks of taking herbal remedies, yet very few high-quality studies have been done. When researchers at the University of Manchester in England reviewed the clinical trials on Chinese herbs for cancer, they discovered only 49 studies, and all but one were poorly designed and reported.

Although there are many reasons as to why more thorough studies on complementary cancer therapies aren’t being undertaken, money is one of the biggest problems. “The difficulty in securing funding is the key issue, as there is a need to compete with all other studies, and these studies on herbs seem to be of low priority,” explains Alexander Molassiotis, RN, MSc, PhD, professor of Cancer & Supportive Care at the University of Manchester.

Most of the studies that have been done originated in China, suggesting that Western doctors aren’t fully on board with herbal remedies. “Conventional medicine is unconvinced about the use of herbs and worried about their use,” says Professor Molassiotis. “There is much negative press around such treatments. Also there is a difficulty understanding a different medical philosophy, such as that of Chinese medicine.”

The studies that have been done on complementary Chinese therapies – though not of the highest quality – do suggest some benefit to cancer patients. Some studies have indicated that Chinese herbs can help relieve the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, while others have found that they improve symptoms and quality of life in cancer patients. A few studies have even suggested that Chinese herbs might slow cancer growth and improve patient survival. None of the studies included in this review noted any side effects from the use of herbs.

The results of existing studies are promising, but better quality research is needed to confirm any real benefits, say the authors of the review. “It seems that certain herbs could assist in the management of side effects and improve the quality of life in cancer patients, but current evidence is not enough to change practice,” says Professor Molassiotis. “Rigorous trials are necessary to explore the effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicines.”


Molassiotis A, Potrata B, Cheng KKF. A systematic review of the effectiveness of Chinese herbal medication in symptom management and improvement of quality in life in adult cancer patients. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2009;17:92-120.

Editor's Note:

This study underscores the fact that while herbs and other natural supplements may prove to be safe and effective to manage cancer, more research is needed.  The question is why has this research not been completed.  Unfortunately, the answer is economic, not scientific.  To a large extent, pharmaceutical companies determine what potential cancer therapies will be studied and funded with the estimated 300 million dollars required to take a therapy through clinical trials.  But, no drug company will spend that amount of money on a therapy that cannot be patented.  Because Chinese herbs and other natural supplements exist in nature and were not created in a laboratory they are very difficult to patent.  If they cannot be patented they cannot be owned by a corporation.  If they cannot be owned by a corporation why would a company invest money to bring it to market?  This fundamental economic dilemma may be the reason why there are no 100% whole natural supplements approved for the treatment of cancer.

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