Holistic and herbal remedies have for the past century or so been resigned to the periphery of modern medicine, as highly effective, homogenous synthetic drugs quickly came to replace folk treatments. However, researchers and medical practitioners alike have begun to acknowledge that chemicals that are naturally occurring in nature and found in many supplements and holistic extracts can indeed aid in the treatment of serious diseases.
One such remedy comes from the bark of the Amur cork tree (Phellodendron amurense), which has for centuries been associated with holistic medicine and folk remedies. In a new study led by researchers at the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio, Amur cork tree bark is now being tested in the lab to gauge whether or not this incredible, natural source of healing that stretches back into antiquity can be used to treat one of the deadliest and most complex diseases — pancreatic cancer.
The Long, Proven History of an Herb From the East
The Amur cork tree seems like an exotic remedy to the west — a new addition to the medical lexicon — but in the east, Phellodendron amurense has long been a part of traditional medicine. Extract from the Amur cork tree, known as huáng bò (Chinese: 黄柏 or 黄檗) in China, is part of the 50 fundamental herbs that comprise Chinese herbal therapy — a proven approach to medicine that dates back to the “Recipes for 52 Ailments” manuscript, which was found in the Mawangdui tombs that were sealed in 168 BC.
In fact, the use of these fundamental herbs — Amur cork included — date back even further than 168 BC, since the mythical Shénnóng (神农, lit. “Divine Farmer”), was said to have lived around 2800 BC, and was responsible for the testing and compilation of the herbs based on tasting and experimented with hundreds of herbal possibilities. His herbal medicine book Shénnóng Běn Cǎo Jīng (神农本草经, Shennong’s Materia Medica) is believed to be the oldest book on Chinese herbal medicine.
Throughout the ages, Amur cork extract has been effectively used in Chinese culture to treat a wide range of illnesses, such as meningitis, bacillary dysentery, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and liver cirrhosis — conditions that share some similar traits to more serious diseases such as cancer.
Bringing Ancient Medicine To Bear On Modern Disease
UT Health Science Center researcher A. Pratap Kumar, the lead researcher on the project, has been focused on the cork tree extract’s potential to be used as a starting point for cancer treatment for some time now, having begun his research with experimenting using the extract in treating prostate cancer. During the course of that investigation, Dr. Kumar and his team came to recognize that, because pancreatic cancers develop similarly in the body to that of prostate tumors, that the bark could be used in other cancer treatments as well.
The results of the new study involving pancreatic cancer were published recently in the journal Clinical Cancer Research, which highlights how the extract blocks pathways in pancreatic cancer and inhibits the scarring associated with the disease that thwarts anti-cancer drugs, making it such a progressive form of cancer that is extremely difficult to treat. The study itself was conducted by Dr. Jingjing Gong, who is currently pursuing post-doctoral studies at Yale University, back when he was a graduate student in Dr. Kumar’s laboratory in the Department of Pharmacology.
Kumar explained how scarring — also known as fibrosis — is the major obstacle in attacking cancerous tumors: “Fibrosis is a process of uncontrolled scarring around the tumor gland,” said Dr. Kumar, a professor of urology in the School of Medicine at the Health Science Center and the study’s principal investigator. “Once you have fibrotic tissue, the drugs cannot get into the cancer.”
Pancreatic cancer is not the only form of the disease marked by high levels of fibrosis around tumors; liver and kidney tumors develop fibrosis as well, resulting in resistance to drugs. To date, there are no drugs that effectively circumvents high levels of fibrosis.
How Amur Cork Tree Extract May Suppress Fibrosis
No synthetic cancer drug has managed to inhibit fibrosis and allow tumors to be effectively targeted in cancers such as pancreatic cancer. However, the cork tree extract appears to suppress the two pathways, or proteins, that contribute to fibrosis in pancreatic tumors and inhibit Cox-2, an enzyme that causes inflammation, according to Dr. Kumar. While the extract is effective in doing this, Kumar and researchers are still not exactly sure how or why — and in order to fully wield the extract’s potential, they will need to continue their research to understand the mechanisms.
What is particularly encouraging about this discovery is that, should it prove to be a viable pancreatic cancer treatment option, the treatment itself would not have to go through the rigorous testing to determine if it is safe for humans, since it has been used effectively for other remedies for centuries, and is currently approved as a dietary supplement. It is sold user the brand name of Nexrutine by Next Pharmaceuticals of Salinas, California, which has provided the researchers a supply of the compound for their studies. The extract can be taken in simple capsule form, and Kumar has found that it is well-tolerated in virtually every participant involved in his studies.
If Amur Cork Tree Extract proves to be an effective, side effect-free alternative to other treatment for pancreatic cancer, it could usher in a new wave of treatments for other cancers as well.