One of Traditional Chinese Medicine’s ancient natural therapies is being tested as a possible treatment for liver cancer – even for cases once thought hopeless.
Studies suggest that berbamine, a nutrient from the barberry plant, does work and can help block the growth of liver cancer cells. Let’s take a look at the evidence…
There’s nothing all that unusual about the barberry shrub. It has gray, thorny branches that can grow nearly nine feet tall. The initial bloom from April to June produces yellow flowers, which become dark, red berries in the fall.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the plant’s bark, berries and roots have been used for medicinal purposes for over 2500 years, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The plant was also used in Native American medicine for many problems, including to:
- Treat diarrhea
- Reduce fever
- Improve appetite
- Relieve stomach upset
- Increase strength
- Improve mood
In Iran, the barberry plant is widely used to treat gallbladder disease and heartburn.
Now, the City of Hope Cancer Center’s research team may add “kills liver cancer” to the impressive list of barberry’s health benefits.
Wendong Huang, Ph.D., a senior faculty member in City of Hope Cancer Center’s Division of Molecular Diabetes Research, led a team that discovered how berbamine and one of its derivatives, called bbd24, halted cancer cell growth—and even caused the cells to self-destruct.
Berbamine gets to the root of the problem!
Dr. Huang and his colleagues were thrilled to find that berbamine and its compounds — phytochemicals extracted from the barberry plant — killed liver cancer cells at doses safe for human consumption. But they were stunned to discover that these compounds also interfered with the malignant stem cells that give rise to liver cancer.
Scientists believe these cancer stem cells are the reason tumors reoccur after surgery and other treatments. They also believe the stem cells are the source of chemotherapy-resistant liver cancers (also called multi-drug-resistant or MDR cancers.)
Essentially, berbamine appears to go straight to the root cause of liver cancer—which is impressive considering how difficult it can be to treat this deadly disease.
Prof. Huang published the team’s study findings in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.
City of Hope, by the way, has one of the country’s leading conventional liver cancer research and treatment programs in the country.
What makes liver cancer so deadly?
Primary liver cancer is also called hepatocellular carcinoma, a form which begins in the main type of liver cell (hepatocyte). Other types of cells in the liver can develop cancer, although these cancers are less common.
Primary liver cancer can occur in livers damaged by:
- Alcohol abuse
- Birth defects
- Chronic infection from hepatitis B and C
- Cirrhosis (scarring often caused by alcohol abuse)
- Hemochromatosis (an hereditary disease caused by too much iron in the liver)
- Obesity and fatty liver disease
Surprisingly, most cases of liver cancer originate in other parts of the body and reach the liver by metastasis. This can happen because the liver constantly filters blood that circulates throughout the body. This makes the organ easy prey for cancer cells traveling in your bloodstream.
Several types of tumors can form in the liver because it’s made up of several different types of cells. These tumors have different causes and must be treated differently. A patient’s prospects for health or recovery depend on the type of tumor he or she has.
The two primary types of cancerous liver tumors are called hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and cholangiocarcinoma. You can guess that the main treatment options are the slash, burn and poison remedies typical of mainstream oncology.
Detecting liver cancer
Currently, the best detection for liver cancer is ultrasound, CT, or MRI scans. There are also blood tests that look for alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) which is a tumor marker to detect cancers of the liver, testes, and ovaries.
The American Cancer Society reports that several new blood tests are being investigated to see if they can detect liver cancer sooner than these tests.
There are also several benign, or non-cancerous, liver tumors such as:
- Hepatic adenoma
- Focal nodular hyperplasia
Because these tumors are non-cancerous, they are not treated as cancer. But they may be removed surgically if they cause pain or bleeding.
Preventing liver cancer
Some scientists believe that hepatitis vaccines could help prevent about half of liver cancer cases worldwide. People infected with hepatitis are at very high risk for liver cancer.
Most cases of hepatitis B and C come from contaminated blood products, sharing of needles among intravenous drug users, or unprotected sex. By using ordinary good sense about these activities, you can largely avoid the risk of primary liver cancer (although not the secondary kind that is spread by metastasis).
There is a vaccine for hepatitis B, and it’s probably a good idea for people who are at risk. As for hepatitis C, there is still no vaccine, but there are effective treatments. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), new antiviral treatments can cure 95 percent of people with hepatitis C, but the treatments are expensive and not accessible to everyone in need.
Prof. Huang believes berbamine and its derivatives have great potential for treating patients with advanced liver disease. Based on other evidence, it seems that berbamine has excellent potential for treating other types of cancer as well. To date, it has mostly been used in Asia and, outside of Traditional Chinese Medicine, might be hard to find in the United States.
In addition, berbamine should not be confused with berberine, which is a similar chemical compound also found in the barberry plant. Berberine has anti-cancer properties, too, and can easily be purchased as an over-the-counter supplement from many online retailers.
- Liver cancer factsheet. Available at https://www.cancer.org/cancer/liver-cancer.html
- Meng, Z. et al. 2013. Berbamine inhibits the growth of liver cancer cells and cancer-initiating cells by targeting Ca²⁺/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II. Mol Cancer Ther. 2013 Oct;12(10):2067-77. doi: 10.1158/1535-7163.MCT-13-0314. Epub 2013 Aug 19.
- Yan-lin Wei et al. 2009. Berbamine exhibits potent antitumor effects on imatinib-resistant CML cells in vitro and in vivo. Acta Pharmacologica Sinica (2009) 30: 451–457; doi: 10.1038/aps.2009.19