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Remembering introduction to alternative medicine and ancient herb artemisinin

Small things sometimes serve to guide memories of major events in our lives, and so it is as I near the five-year mark of my first contact with alternative medicine. It came about as I was commencing a search for information on how I might best deal with a slow-growing prostate cancer.

A search for information on dealing with a cancer for which there is time to weigh approaches inevitably leads to exploration of both traditional medicine and alternatives that involve nature's role.

And it was as I pursued that examination of all my options before deciding on my preferred approach that I met a naturopathic physician, Dr. Eric Yarnell, then on the faculty of Bastyr University, and learned of artemisinin, an extract derived from an ancient Chinese herb called artemisia annua.

I had known a little about alternative medicine, but learning of artemisinin, also known as sweet wormwood, and the fact that it was being viewed as a cancer-fighting agent caused me to want to learn more both about the herb and about Bastyr, which is one of the most respected naturopathic universities in the nation.

In the end, thanks partly to the advise of Yarnell (advise that some have viewed as ironic, given the naturopathic focus on natural therapies), I had surgery to remove the prostate. But I have since learned more about naturopathic medicine and kept in touch with the potential health benefits of nature's products, like artemisinin, and studies relating to their potential to fight not just cancer, but also other diseases.

Paul Amieux 
Bastyr University 

I was reminded of the introduction to alternative medicine and artemisinin recently as I was reading about the Nobel Prize awarded last fall to an 85-year-old Chinese scientist named Youyou Tu for developing treatment for malaria from artemisinin, which has become the norm for malaria treatmemt worldwide.

Reading the story of the aging Chinese pharmaceutical chemist's award, which capped her 49-year search for a cure for malaria and her research that guided her to Artemisinin (which she first encountered in a 1,600-year-old text) caused me to wonder what progress had been made in bringing traditional and alternative medicine closer.

At the time, as I shared my explorations of alternative medicine with my doctors at the Polyclinic in Seattle and at University of Washington Medical Center, medical professionals in whom I had maximum trust and regard, I learned that they then had only a vague awareness of alternative medicine.

So I recently set about learning what has changed in awareness and understanding across medicine's diverse landscape in the past few years.

For one thing, the word "alternative" is disappearing, as evidenced by the fact that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine has rebranded as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.

For another, there is a growing willingness on the part of traditional medical centers to pursue joint research projects with non-traditional medical institutions. That has been particularly true since the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has begun grants to traditional and non-traditional partnerships in an array of collaborative research grants, particularly relating to cancer.

In addition, in the Seattle area and East King County, the presence of an estimated 100,000 resident who are from the Indian subcontinent has brought a focus on Ayurveda Medicine, which has historic roots in that region, as another type of alternative medicine.

"Alternative meant separate from or in lieu of, but they are no longer viewed as two different medical worlds, but rather as integrated, taking the best of both," said Paul Amieux, Ph.D., Bastyr's Research Administrative Director. He actually is an intriguing example of integrative medicine as a graduate of University of Washngton Medical School with a Ph.D in pharmacology and a BA in biology. Thereafter he was an instructor at the UW medical school for a time.

I asked Amieux for a rundown of clinical trials at respected research universities here and around the world where early clinical trials are being conducted on the possible effect of artemisinin on various forms of cancer.

Among the trials are one at Georgetown on intravenous delivery for solid tumors, another at St. George University of London on oral delivery for colorectal cancer and one at University Hospital Ghent, Belgium, a safety study exploring the impact of escalating dosage in liver-cancer patients.

"Although there are indeed phase 1 and phase 2 clinical trials currently running and some individual case reports, there is no definitive clinical evidence of artemisinin's effectiveness from large, Phase 3, controlled clinical trials," Amieux said. "But there are clearly basic science publications that indicate it may effectively kill some types of cancer cells in the labs."

There's always a risk when a layman goes seeking to understand the intricacies of how medicine works. But I couldn't help wanting to learn why and how artemisinin might be a cancer fighter, in addition to already being the worldwide treatment of choice for malaria.

What I learned was that what some have described as artemisinin's "significant anti-cancer effect" is due, according those who undertand to the fact it contains peroxide. And research suggests that when peroxide comes in contact with cells having high iron concentrations, it breaks down, creating free radicals that basically provide overdoses of iron to iron-accumulating malaria and cancer cells.

I also learned, as I delved into alternative medicine, about mushrooms, which were then already being seen in a different light, and studies of the suggested impact of different kinds of mushrooms on different cancers have advanced since then. But mushrooms and cancer is a topic for a different day, particularly relating to collaborative studies funded by NIH, and a specific one involving UW, Cancer Care Alliance, The Hutch and Bastyr, a study whose results have not yet been published.
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