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Study Shows How Chinese Medicine Kills Cancer Cells

Researchers at The University of Adelaide have shown how a complex mix of plant compounds derived from a traditional Chinese medicine can kill cancer cells.

Compound kushen injection (CKI) is approved for use in China to treat various cancer tumours, usually as an adjunct to western chemotherapy. How it works has not been known.

The study, published in Oncotarget (, is one of the first to characterise the molecular action of a traditional Chinese medicine rather than breaking it down to its constituent parts.

“If we broke down and tested the components of many traditional Chinese medicines, we would find that individual compounds don’t have much activity on their own,” says study leader Prof David Adelson of the Zhendong Australia–China Centre for the Molecular Basis of Traditional Chinese Medicine. “It’s the combination of compounds which can be effective, and potentially means few side-effects as well.

“This is one of the first studies to show the molecular mode of action of a complex mixture of plant-based compounds – in this case extracts from the roots of two medicinal herbs, Kushen and Baituling.”

The researchers used high-throughput next generation sequencing technologies to identify genes and biological pathways targeted by CKI when applied to breast cancer cells grown in the laboratory. “We showed that the patterns of gene expression triggered by CKI affect the same pathways as western chemotherapy, but by acting on different genes in the same pathways,” Adelson says.

“These genes regulate the cell cycle of division and death, and it seems that CKI alters the way the cell cycle is regulated to push cancer cells down the cell death pathway, therefore killing the cells.”

Adelson says the technique could be used to analyse the molecular mechanisms of other traditional Chinese medicines, potentially opening their way for use in western medicine.