Chinese medicine compound could block liver cancer

October 18, 2013 | by

Liver cancer is tough to treat, and it’s on the rise. Now among the top 10 cancers diagnosed in the U.S. each year, it’s the third-deadliest cancer in the world. But a compound found in a traditional Chinese medicine may one day help halt the disease’s advance.

Photo of Wendong Huang, Ph.D., in lab

Wendong Huang strives for new insights into metabolism and liver cancer. What he discovers could help tame the disease. Photo credit: Walter Urie

Wendong Huang, Ph.D., associate professor in City of Hope's Division of Molecular Diabetes Research, and his colleagues recently published the findings in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. They found that berbamine and one of its derivatives, called bbd24, blocked the growth of liver cancer cells and drove them to their deaths.

Berbamine comes from a plant that has been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine to treat inflammation. In recent years, however, the anticancer potential of berbamine and some of its chemical cousins has come to scientists’ attention.

Spurred by the compounds’ anticancer potential, Huang and his team of researchers looked to see what, if any, effect berbamine and bbd24 might have on liver cancer cells, one of Huang’s chief research interests. They found in laboratory studies that the compounds did kill liver cancer cells, and at doses that would be reasonable for humans to receive.

Perhaps more important, they also found that the compounds interfered with the malignant stem cells that give rise to liver cancer. Mounting evidence shows that these cancer stem cells are the source of tumor recurrence following surgery and other treatments that do away with the original liver tumor. They also are the likely source of chemotherapy-resistant liver cancers.

As the researchers note in their study, “there is an unmet medical need to identify novel therapies to efficiently treat liver cancer and improve the prognosis of this disease.” Based on their findings, they believe berbamine and its derivatives have great potential for treating patients with advanced disease. “Application of berbamine alone or in combination with other drugs may provide new approaches for liver cancer therapies,” they wrote.

The researchers now are taking a closer look at the protein that berbamine acts on, called CAMKII, which seems to be key to boosting liver cancer’s rise. The work could help scientists better understand the mechanism of liver cancer development and open the door to other potent targeted drugs to treat the disease.

Other authors on the study include Zhipeng Meng, Tao Li, Xiaoxiao Ma, Xiaoqiong Wang, Carl Van Ness, Guiyu Lou, Yafan Wang, Jun Wu and Yun Yen from City of Hope; and Yichao Gan, Hong Zhou, Jinfen Tang and Rongzhen Xu of the Key Laboratory of Cancer Prevention and Intervention at the China National Ministry of Education and Cancer Institute, Second Affiliated Hospital in China.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under grant number R01-CA139158. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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