Cancer patients may find relief from the intestinal side effects of chemotherapy by using an ancient Chinese medicine, according to a study published in Science Translational Medicine (2010 Aug 18;2(45):45ra59).

For the study researchers used a lab formulation of Huang Qin Tag, an ancient herbal medicine used in China to treat intestinal disorders, to treat cancerous mice that experienced damage to their intestinal linings after they had received chemotherapy.

Researchers reported that after a few days of treatment with the specially-formulated herbal medicine, the damaged intestinal lining in the mice was restored. In addition, the herbal medicine blocked the migration of inflammatory cells to the gut and reduced inflammation.

The authors explained that the herbal medicine itself did not stimulate stem cell signaling molecules, but that mixing the herbal medicine with a bacterial enzyme common in the gut triggered the signaling of stem cell molecules to then drive the replacement of damaged intestinal stem cells with healthy ones.

“The reductionist approach to treating multiple side effects triggered by cancer chemotherapy or complicated disease may not be sufficient,” said Cheng. “Rigorous studies of the biology of traditional herbal medicines, which target multiple sites with multiple chemicals, could lead to the development of future medicines.”