New Advances in Complementary Care

January 1, 2015

Traditional Chinese medications can be safe and effective treatment options for IBD and colon cancer, research shows

 Innovations in Pediatrics - Winter 2015 - View Full PDF 

Current therapies for many disorders affecting the gastrointestinal tract, including colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), aren’t always effective on complex tumor systems. Plus, long-term use often creates drug resistance and toxicity that affects healthy cells. 

With the urgent need for novel anticancer therapies, traditional Chinese medications (TCM) are gaining attention for their non-toxic natural compounds and their centuries-old use in China.
Thomas J. Sferra, MD, Division Chief of Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition at UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, has worked with colleagues to author several studies on the use of traditional Chinese compounds in the treatment of gastrointestinal conditions. Specifically, Dr. Sferra’s group is looking at the use of TCMs in IBD, as well as their potential use in the treatment of colon cancer.
Dr. Sferra’s interest in TCM began during a conversation with Youqin Chen, PhD, a research scientist in his laboratory, and Jun Peng, PhD, of the Academy of Integrative Medicine at Fujian University of Traditional Chinese Medicine in China. After discussing similar research interests, the group began collaborating five years ago with the goal of bringing TCMs into Western medicine.
“Chinese practitioners use these medications for multiple disorders and believe they are quite effective,” Dr. Sferra says. “Our research group is trying to understand the specific mechanisms by which these formulations work and apply this knowledge to our Western medical thought.”
Dr. Sferra’s research collaborative is working with mouse and cell-culture models and reports seeing great effects. The goal, he says, is to identify the most effective compounds within these TCM formulations that offer the fewest side effects.
“As we continue to understand how TCMs work, we want to first demonstrate they are safe and effective in laboratory conditions and then test the specific compounds in humans as an adjunct to routine Western care,” Dr. Sferra says. “Our initial goal is not to necessarily replace current medications, but to provide a means to decrease the utilization of medications with high toxicities by adding these compounds that are less toxic and have fewer side effects to the overall treatment regimen.”
One of the advantages of using TCM formulations, he says, is that they have several different active ingredients. Because they act through several different pathways within the cell or body to treat a disease, they can be very effective. TCMs don’t work on a single pathway, but on multiple targets.
The TCM's Drs. Sferra, Chen, and Peng are stuyding include:
Spica prunellae (SP) extract has been used to treat blood stasis, edema, acute conjunctivitis, lymphatic tuberculosis, acute mastitis, thyromegaly and hypertension. Drs. Sferra, Chen and Peng’s research group was the fi rst to demonstrate SP’s ability to stop the spread of colon cancer cells. SP is widely distributed in Northeast Asia and has relatively few side effects.
Pien Tze Huang (PZH) has been prescribed for more than 450 years to treat various types of human cancer. Dr. Sferra and his collaborators provided the fi rst evidence that PZH can inhibit mechanisms that result in colon cancer progression and metastasis. They found that PZH suppresses multiple intracellular signaling pathways, promotes suicide of cancer cells, inhibits cell replication and inhibits tumor blood vessel formation. They also demonstrated that PZH targets cancer stem cells, which are naturally resistant to conventional chemotherapy and are involved in cancer relapse and metastasis.
Qing Hua Change Yin (QHCY) has been used for a number of years to treat ulcerative colitis; however, little is known about its anti-infl ammatory properties. Drs. Sferra, Chen and Peng’s investigation demonstrated that QHCY inhibits the infl ammatory response characteristic of ulcerative colitis.
Scutellaria barbata D Don (SB) has been used in China to treat various cancers. Using mouse models, Dr. Sferra’s research group demonstrated that SB possesses a broad range of antitumor activities due to its ability to affect multiple intracellular targets. Specifi cally, they demonstrated that the ethanol extract of SB (EESB) suppresses the activation of cancer-related signaling pathways in tumor cells. This discovery suggests that SB could be a novel therapeutic agent in the treatment of colorectal and other cancers.

Ursolic Acid


Ursolic acid (UA) has been shown previously to possess anti-cancer activity. Dr. Sferra and his collaborators demonstrated that UA significantly suppresses the activation of colorectal cancer-related signaling pathways in mouse models. They published experimental results demonstrating UA's broad range of anti-cancer activities due to its ability to affect multiple intracellular targets. These findings suggest UA could be a novel therapy in the treatment of colorectal and other cancers. In a separate study, the researchers found that UA inhibited cancer growth without significant cellular toxicity by targeting the network of blood vessels that feeds tumors.

Patrinia scabiosaefolia


Patrinia scabiosaefolia (PS) has been used by traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to treat various types of cancers, including colorectal cancer, as well as edema, endometritis and inflammatory illnesses. Dr. Sferra and his collaborators demonstrated for the first time that the ethanol extract of PS (EEPS) inhibited cancer growth without toxicity in mice and triggered cell suicide in colon cancer cells. They also found that EEPS treatment significantly reduced colorectal cancer tumor volume in mouse models and starved the tumor tissue by decreasing blood vessel development within tumor tissue.

Contact Dr. Sferra at

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