Herbal medicines for cancer support

28/08/2018 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ Latest News,Natural Therapies

Herbal Medicines for Cancer Support

… an evidence snapshot by Belle McCaleb

There are a number of herbal medicines demonstrated to have anti-cancer actions and there is ever increasing interest in the research literature. 

A recent search of the US government’s National Cancer Institute website revealed 54 approved clinical trials (eg human trials) under the search term “botanical therapy/herbal therapy”.

Herbal remedies for cancer being examined include; Astragalus, Silymarin (from St Mary’s Thistle), Modified Citrus Pectin, Curcumin (from Turmeric), Saw Palmetto, ECGC (green tea extract), Cat’s Claw, Iscador (Mistletoe), Black Cohosh and Korean Ginseng.

A similar search two years ago revealed 49 ongoing clinical trails in botanical therapy including trials on Turmeric, Boswellia, Green Tea, Broccoli, Coriolus, Reishi, Resveratrol, Grapeseed and Mistletoe. Although we are awaiting results of these clinical trials, much supportive evidence is already at hand.

The following is a snapshot of some of the supportive literature on herbal medicine for cancer support. 

PSK Coriolus versicolor

More than 2 dozen human studies of PSK have been reviewed by experts at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. People who received PSK with other treatments, such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy, generally had longer periods of time without disease and had increased survival rates compared with patients who received only standard treatment.

PSK is a “promising candidate for chemoprevention due to the multiple effects on the malignant process, limited side effects and safety of daily oral doses for extended periods of time.” (www.cancer.org)


Resveratrol is found in grapes, wine, grape juice, peanuts, cocoa, and berries of Vaccinium species

In leukemia (AML) incubation with resveratrol inhibited cellular proliferation and lead to cancer cell death (apoptosis)

(Estrov Z et al, Resveratrol blocks interleukin-1 beta induced activation of the nuclear transcription factor NF-kappa beta, inhibits proliferation, causes S-phase arrest and induces apoptosis of acute myeloid leukemia cells, Blood, Vol 102, No 3, Aug 2003). Similarly in myeloma resveratrol was shown to inhibit proliferation, induce apoptosis and overcome cancer chemoresistance (Bhardwaj A et al, (2007) Blood, Mar 15; 109(6);2293-302)

ECCG (Green tea extract)

EGCG significantly increased apoptosis/cell death in 8 of 10 chronic lymphocytic leukaemia samples measured (Lee YK et al, VEGF receptor phosphorylation status and apoptosis is modulated by a green tea component, epigallocatechin-3-gallage (EGCG) in B cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia, Blood, Vol 104, No 3, August 2004).

ECGC uppresses cell growth and induces cell death in human prostate cancer cells (Gupta S et al (2003), Molecular pathway for epigalloctechin 3 gallate induced cell cycle arrest and apoptosis of human prostate carcinoma cells. Archives of Biochemistry and Biophysics, 410(1):177-8)

Indole 3 carbinol (I3C, from cruciferous vegetables)

I3C induces cell cycle arrest and inhibits prostate cancer cell growth (Chinni SR et al (2001), Indole 3 carbinol induced cell growth inhibition, G1 cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in prostate cancer cells, Oncogene, 20:2927-2936)

I3C induces cell cycle arrest and inhibits prostate cancer cell growth (Chinni SR et al (2001), Indole 3 carbinol induced cell growth inhibition, G1 cell cycle arrest and apoptosis in porstate cancer cells, Oncogene, 20:2927-2936)

I3C Down regulates estrogen receptor activity in tumours. (Meng et al Indole-3-Carbinol is a negative regulator of estrogen receptor signaling in human tumour cells Jnl Nut. 2000; 130:2927-31


May increase effectiveness of platinum based chemotherapy drugs, can inhibit immuno-suppression and reduce risk of death (McCulloch M et al Astragalus based Chinese herbal medicine when combined with chemotherapy may increase effectiveness of platinum-based  chemotherapy (and reduce risk of death); J Clin Oncol. 2006 Jan 20; 24(3):419-30) &(Song Y et al, Antitumor and immunoregulatory effects of astragalus on nasopharyngeal carcinoma in vivo and in vitro. Phytother Res. 2011 Jun;25(6):909-15.)


Withania may be found useful in the management of malignancy by targeting at multiple pathways including immune modulation and apoptosis (cancer cell death) induction (Malik F et al, Immune modulation and apoptosis induction: Two sides of antitumoural activity of a standardised herbal formulation of Withania somnifera. Eur J Cancer. 2009 May;45(8):1494-509.)

Korean ginseng

Extensively studied in over 1500 studies. Multiple anticancer effects: anti-inflammatory, Anti-oxidant, induces cancer cell death. Inhibits cancer cell proliferation, modulates the immune system. enhances survival and chemo affects (Shin HJ, et al Enhancement of antitumour effects of paclitaxel(taxol) in combination with red ginseng acidic polysaccharide(RGAP). Planta Med. 2004 Nov; 70(11): 1033-8).

Baical scullcap

Inhibits the growth of acute lymphocytic leukaemia, lymphoma and myeloma cell lines by inducing apoptosis and cell cycle arrest at clinically achievable concentrations.

(Kumagai T et al, Scutellaria baicalensis, a herbal medicine: anti-proliferative and apoptotic activity against acute lymphocytic leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma cell lines. Leuk Res. 2007 Apr;31(4):523-30. Epub 2006 Sep 26.)

Crude ethanolic extracts were selectively toxic to (several) human lung cancer cell lines compared with normal human lung fibroblasts (Gao J et al , The ethanol extract of Scutellaria baicalensis and the active compounds induce cell cycle arrest and apoptosis including upregulation of p53 and Bax in human lung cancer cells. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 2011 Aug 1;254(3):221-8.)

Cimicifuga racemosa (Black Cohosh)

Black Cohosh inhibits proliferation of estrogen receptor positive and negative breast cancer via inducing apoptosis.(Hostanska K et al, Cimicifuga racemosa extract inhibits proliferation of estrogen receptor positive and negative human breast carcinoma cell lines by induction of apoptosis, Breast Cancer Res Treat., March , 2004,:84(2):151-160)

Dan Shen

For androgen-dependent LNCaP (prostate cancer) cells, a colony growth assay showed strong inhibitory potency being 10-30 folds higher than Casodex (hormone blocker).

AR targeting action of tanshinones was distinct from Casodex and contributed to prostate cancer growth suppression in vitro and in vivo.(Zhang Y et al, Tanshinones from Chinese Medicinal Herb Danshen (Salvia miltiorrhiza Bunge) Suppress Prostate Cancer Growth and Androgen Receptor Signaling, Pharm Res. 2012 Jan 27.)

Turmeric, Rosemay, St Mary’s Thistle Combined

Extracts of these herbs combined at non-cytotoxic concentrations of each agent, produced a synergistic anti-proliferative effect and a massive apoptotic cell death in HL-60 and KG-1a human acute myeloid leukaemia cells.  (Pesakhov GP et al, Distinct combinatorial effects of the plant polyphenols curcumin, carnosic acid, and silibinin on proliferation and apoptosis in acute myeloid leukemia cells.Nutr Cancer 2010;62(6):811-24.)

Ganoderma (Reishi)

Ganoderma lucidum can bring about cytokine secretion and cell death in human leukemia THP-1 cells (HSU JW et al Ganoderma lucidum Polysaccharides Induce Macrophage-like Differentiation in Human Leukemia THP-1 Cells via Caspase and p53 Activation. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 Aug 20.)

In ovarian cancer Ganoderma lucidum inhibits cell growth and disruption of cell cycle progression. Multiple chemopreventive activities known to provide chemoprotection against carcinogenicity. (Hsieh TC, Wu JM Int J Mol Med. Suppression of proliferation and oxidative stress by extracts of Ganoderma lucidum in the ovarian cancer cell line OVCAR-3. 2011 Dec;28(6):1065-9.)

Ganoderma lucidum inhibits proliferation and induces apoptosis in human prostate cancer cells PC-3(Jiang J et al, (2004) International Journal of Oncology 24:1093-1099

Inhibits 5 alpha reductase);  (Fuita R et al, (2005),Anti-androgenic activities of Ganoderma lucidum,Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 102(1):107-112)


Dose dependent apoptosis in acute lymphoblastic leukemia in vivo and in vitro

Significantly improved survival at all tested concentrations in contrast to controls without side effects (55.4 days vs 34.6 days) (Seifert G et al, Molecular mechanisms of mistltoe plant extract induced apoptosis in acute lymphoblastic leukemia in vivo and in vitro, Cancer Letters, 2008, Jun 18:264(2)


Induces apoptosis in myeloid leukemia cells (Xia L et al Boswellic acid acetate induces apoptosis through caspase-mediated pathways in myeloid leukemia cells, Molecular Cancer Therapy, 2005;4); (Jing Y, Boswellic acid acetate induces differentiation and apopotosis in leukemia cell lines, Leukemia Research, 1999, Vol 23(1)

Boswelliic acid and guggal guggal inhibit 5 HETE, a major growth factor for both androgen dependent and independent prostate cancer cell lines (McCarty M,Integr Cancer Ther 2004;3:349).

Curcumin (Turmeric)

Curcumin is a potent inducer of apoptosis in both androgen dependent and independent prostate cancer cells (Dorai T et al (2000), Therapeutic potential of curcumin in human prostate cancer. Curcumin inhibits tyrosine kinase activity of epidermal growth factor receptor and depletes the protein. Molecular Urology,  4(1):1-6.

Curcumin potentiates antitumor activity of gefitinib (Iressa) in non small cell lung cancer. Curcumin attenuates gefitinib-induced gastrointestinal adverse effects via altering p38 activation. (Lee JU , Curcumin induces EGFR degradation in lung adenocarcinoma and modulates p38 activation in intestine: the versatile adjuvant for gefitinib therapy. PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e23756. Epub 2011 Aug 17.)

Curcumin down regulates the activation of NF-kappa beta in human multiple myeloma cells leading to suppression of proliferation and induction of apoptosis. (Bharti AC et al (2003), Blood, Feb 1101(3): 1053-62.)

Curcumin circumvents chemoresistance in vitro and potentiates the effects of thalidomide and bortezommib agains human multiple myeloma cells in nude mice model
(Sung B et al, (2009) Molecular Cancer Therapies, Apr 8(4):959-70.)

Vitis viniferi (Grape Seed)

Grape seed extract inhibits growth & metastasis in both androgen-sensitive and – insensitive prostate cancer (Singh RP, Tyagi AK, Dhanalakshmi S, Agarwal R, Agarwal c.  Grape seed extract inhibits advanced human prostate tumor growth and angiogenesis and upregulates insulin like growth factor binding protein-3. Int J Cancer. 2004 Feb 20; 108(5):733-41)

Grape seed synergistic with chemotherapy for breast cancer independent of estrogen receptor status. (Sharma G, Tyagi AK, Singh RP, chan DC, Agarwal R. Synergistic anti-cancer effects of grape seed extract and conventional cytotoxic agent doxorubicin against human breast carcinoma cells. Breast Cancer Res Treat. 2004 May; 85(1): 1-12.)

Crocetin (from saffron)

Significant potential as an anti-tumor agent in animal models and cell culture systems.

Affects the growth of cancer cells by inhibiting nucleic acid synthesis, enhancing anti-oxidative system, inducing apoptosis and hindering growth factor signaling pathways.

(Gutheil WG, Crocetin: an agent derived from saffron for prevention and therapy for cancer Curr Pharm Biotechnol. 2012 Jan 1;13(1):173-9.)

In conclusion…

The above are just a brief snapshot – evidence supporting herbal medicine as an anti-cancer approach is evident and continuing to mount; however, clinical trials are considered the gold standard and so we await the outcomes of the numerous trials underway with positive expectation. 

It is interesting to note that herbal medicines are not traditionally given as single herbs but in combination for maximum benefit and of course most clinical trials only look at a single variable, in this case a herb.

Whilst it is not advised to self prescribe these medicines, as there are considerations, contra-indications and possible interactions to be considered; it may be worth consulting a qualified herbalist to discuss the appropriateness of herbal medicine as supportive cancer care.


Article by

by Belle McCaleb – Cancer Support


*Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is intended for general use and for personal interest only. It should not be used or understood as suggestion or medical advice.