November 14, 2003
Union College biology professor Brian Wong presented his cancer-fighting research findings as a panelist at the 2nd Annual Frontiers in Cancer Prevention Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research Oct. 26-30 in Phoenix, Ariz.
Wong and several student researchers at Union College have found in their studies on mice that Scutellaria barbata (SB), a mint-like herb, has reduced the occurrence and growth of cancer cells. In traditional Chinese medicine, this herb has been used to treat illnesses including appendicitis, hepatitis, snakebites, and cancers of the liver, rectum and lung.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Wong was familiar with many herbal remedies, including SB. In 1990, Wong began studying the herb in his doctoral research, and his early studies revealed SB contains chemicals that protect cells against cancer. Concerned about the rising numbers of men suffering from prostate cancer, the second most common cancer in men, Wong is currently researching whether SB can trigger the normal dying process (called programmed cell or apoptosis) in abnormal prostate cells that cause tumors by refusing to die and multiplying.
Overall, results of Wong’s study showed that tumor development in mice given SB was considerably slower than in mice not fed the herb. With a similar pattern in humans, SB could delay tumor onset by 3 to 4 years. According to Wong, humans would need to ingest a few ounces of SB to attain the same results. Research from other institutions demonstrated SB has similar effects against breast, ovarian and lung cancers.
In their studies, Union College researchers fed mice either 8 or 16 milligrams a day of SB extract or a sterile water placebo. Mice in all three study groups had were genetically predisposed to develop prostate cancer.
Significant tumors had developed by 19 weeks in the placebo group and by 32 weeks, all placebo mice had palpable tumors. However, 20 percent and 30 percent of the mice in the 8 mg and 16 mg SB groups, respectively, were free of tumors. At 27 weeks, fewer than 30 percent of the mice not given SB were tumor-free, contrasted with 50 percent and 70 percent in the low and high-dose groups, respectively.
“We are finding that, in this case, the therapeutic value of natural herbs is presenting itself as clinically valid,” Wong said. “As we further study Scutellaria barbata, we hope to find the same benefits against prostate cancer in human models. As a matter of fact, our most recent data demonstrated that the SB has the same effects in regulating programmed cell death in human prostate cancer cells.”
While Wong and his team of student researchers have gained professional recognition for their cancer research, he says undergraduates at most colleges are rarely provided hands-on research experience of this nature. He describes the prostate cancer research project as a way to forward Union’s mission both by serving humanity and by educating students.
“Thorough applied research students learn to be good scientists, and many continue to medical school.” Wong said. “These future doctors need to know how to search for a cure; research teaches them the methods they need.”