Herbal Healing #4/4 ( By TIMEasia.com )

Western laboratories are likewise scrutinizing polyphenols and saponins, which appear to play a role in preventing cancer, killing tumors, lowering cholesterol, fighting infection and even countering depression. So far, science has been unable to explain how they work. The Chinese haven't figured it out either but Liu thinks the same mechanism underlies China's ancient ways of healing: "Western medicine is like a key in a lock. But traditional Chinese medicine is nonspecific, just like polyphenols and saponins. That's why, for example, traditional medicine doctors can prescribe the same formula for different diseases. It also explains why traditional cures are better for disease prevention and the treatment of chronic conditions that are usually caused by a combination of factors, not a single virus or bacterium."

Yet Liu is also trying to develop a more focused treatment for blood clots, using a method he came across in reviewing classical formulations. Another research team at his institute has produced a treatment for HIV that is now being tested on aids patients in Thailand. Even the die-hard traditionalists at Eu Yan Sang are going modern, using the Chinese University of Hong Kong's research to produce a new herbal formula for postmenopausal women that will combine only a few of the most bioactive herbs from the Bak Foong formula.

The traditional medicine-based drug that is probably farthest down the testing road comes from Taiwan. Chemist T.S. Jiang is running a trial of a drug there called Xue Bao ("blood treasure") derived from yellow root, a purple flowering plant. Xue Bao reduces the side effects of chemotherapy on cancer patients, says Jiang, so that appetite improves, normal sleep patterns resume and hair grows back. Critically, Xue Bao has produced no side effects, unlike the two Western drugs G-CSF and EPO, which are most widely used in conjunction with chemotherapy. So far the drug has been tested on 500 patients in Taiwan and China with encouraging results. It still has to pass the third and final trial stages―but Jiang has already taken his faith to the public, floating his company PhytoHealth Corp. on Taiwan's TAISDAQ stock exchange.

"We're kind of excited," says Jiang, and no wonder: the combined market for G-CSF and EPO in 2000 was $6.8 billion. PhytoHealth's stock has dropped about 30% in value from the giddy heights of its debut on May 13, and all eyes are now anxiously focused on the results of the third―and most difficult―round of tests. "So far the phase-two study results have been pretty good," says Yu Hsiang-lin, secretary general of the government's Development Center for Biotechnology. "The real question is whether they can pass phase three safely. If they do, it's a big market."

Meanwhile, the promise of artemisinin looks richer than ever. Henry Lai, a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, recently published a paper detailing experiments in which artemisinin killed virtually all breast cancer cells exposed to it within 16 hours, while having no impact on normal cells. "Not only does it appear to be highly effective," says Lai, "but it's very, very selective." In tests at other universities in the U.S. and Germany, artemisinin has also shown early promise in combating diseases like leukemia and bone cancer.

In their own studies of artemisinin, Chinese scientists appear to have figured out how it works in fighting malaria. They believe the compound reacts with the high concentrations of iron in the malaria parasite to produce free radicals, a highly destructive form of charged atom that kills the parasite. Lai has built on these observations, using them as the foundation of his work on cancer. He knew that high iron concentrations also exist in cancer cells, which need the metal to do the deadly work of replicating themselves millions of times. Artemisinin, he theorizes, has the same effect on iron-rich cancer cells, seeming to knock them dead within hours.

"It all sounds a little too good to be true," says a somewhat bemused Lai, who is currently firing off funding proposals for additional research. And maybe it will in fact prove to be just another losing battle in the endless war against mankind's biggest killer. But as Lai knows, scientists must keep testing all of the weapons in the arsenal―no matter where they come from. If he is right and artemisinin can help vanquish cancer, it will be one of nature's greatest gifts. How strange it would be if the cure were indeed derived from sweet wormwood, a healing plant first mentioned in a Chinese medical text nearly 2,200 years ago.

With reporting by Matthew Forney/Beijing, Brent Hannon/Taipei, Chisu Ko/Seoul, Davena Mok/Hong Kong, Eric Unmacht/Phnom Penh and Douglas Wong/Singapore


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