Help for some cancers?
By Charles Downey
Nov. 27, 2000 -- The phone call that has changed the lives of hundreds of prostate cancer patients rang at the desk of Sophie Chen, PhD, in 1992. Chen, a chemist at Merck, Sharp & Dome in New York, reached for the receiver without looking up from the computer screen where she was analyzing the results of a lab test. Then she froze. Her sister-in-law, calling long-distance from Taiwan, sounded scared. "My husband's cancer is getting worse. Is there anything you can do?"
The easy answer was "no." As a chemist, Chen doesn't treat patients. And she knew that drugs offer little help for people such as her brother-in-law in the advanced stages of prostate cancer. But it was hard to sit by and do nothing, and Chen kept wondering if the answer might lie in herbs like the ones she had been experimenting with at her job.
Eight years later, the concoction Chen helped develop has not only knocked out her brother-in-law's cancer but also apparently saved hundreds of other patients whose prostate cancer has resisted conventional treatment. And while health policy groups remain cautious, preliminary tests have earned it praise from some experts.
"There is no question that in the lab and in humans, the compound has curative effects we just don't see with conventional therapy," says William Fair, MD, former director of urology at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City and a member of the White House Commission on Alternative and Complementary Medicine.
East meets West
The development of PC-SPES is a true story of East meets West. Raised in Taiwan, Chen grew up using Chinese herbs. But after she came to the United States at age 21, she followed a strictly Western course of education, earning her PhD from Columbia University in 1973. Ever since, she has looked for ways that Chinese herbs might be used alongside Western medicine.
In 1987, she discussed these ideas in a speech in Taipei and was approached by Allan Wang, MD, director of traditional Chinese medicine at Shanghai Medical University. Wang had an interesting offer. Around 1900, his great-grandfather had been the court physician for the last Chinese emperor and developed an herbal preparation to treat men's urological problems. Wang had inherited the formula and volunteered to give it to Chen.
When she got the call about her brother-in-law, Chen remembered that conversation. "I immediately wondered if Wang's herbs would work on my relative," Chen says. After many laboratory tests, she came up with a variation on the Wang family blend, mixing chrysanthemum, isatis, licorice, lucid gandermal, pseudo-ginseng, rubescens, saw palmetto, and scute. She dubbed it PC-SPES, combining "PC" from prostate cancer with spes, the Latin word for "hope."
Chen first tried it in test tubes to kill cancer cells taken from her brother-in-law. When those experiments proved successful, she used it to shrink tumors in animals. Finally, she served some up to her brother-in-law himself.
"It suppressed his cancer so much, I was surprised," says Chen. "All my other Chinese relatives heard about PC-SPES. We gave it to a few friends suffering from prostate cancer and all of a sudden, it seemed like everybody wanted it." To meet the demand, Chen helped start BotanicLab in Brea, Calif., the only firm that makes PC-SPES. She still owns an interest in the company, along with Wang.
Put to the test
As reports spread of dramatic recoveries, researchers at major U.S. universities began investigating. What they have found so far doesn't prove that PC-SPES can cure cancer. But it's clear the mixture has powerful effects. Not only has it reduced the levels of prostate specific antigen (PSA) -- a key indicator of prostate cancer -- it has caused tumors to shrink and generally made patients feel better.
In the March 2000 British Journal of Urology, for example, University of Kentucky researchers reported that PC-SPES "markedly" reduced pain and PSA levels in 16 men with advanced prostate cancer. And in the Nov. 1, 2000, issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers from the University of California in San Francisco reported that PSA levels dropped by more than half in three-quarters of the 70 men with prostate cancer given PC-SPES (although it was significantly more effective in some types than others).
While impressive, the results don't convince such authorities as the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the U.S. National Cancer Institute. "More research is need to determine whether PC-SPES is an effective and safe treatment for prostate cancer," says an ACS statement. For starters, researchers must conduct much larger studies.
But even without such evidence, PC-SPES is becoming popular as a treatment of last resort. Prostate cancer confined to the gland itself is usually treated using surgery or radiation. Once the cancer has spread outside the gland, however, these approaches can't help much. Doctors then often use drugs or may even remove the testicles to suppress male hormones, which seem to feed some forms of the cancer. But even when this does work, the cancer usually returns in a year or two.
PC-SPES, too, seems to work partly by suppressing male hormones. But Chen believes it attacks the cancer through other "multiple pathways," and in both the University of Kentucky and the UC San Francisco studies the herbal blend benefited some patients who had already tried conventional hormone-suppressing medications without success. This is the point that has doctors most excited -- for such patients, little else can be done.
"The alternative to PC-SPES is chemotherapy," says Jeffrey Pirani, MD, co-author of the University of Kentucky study. "I see many patients on chemo and I think it is worse than the disease itself." So Pirani and many other doctors aren't waiting for the results of more complete studies before recommending the herbal concoction for patients with advanced cancer.
They might prescribe it even more freely if it were not for the side effects. Many patients experience breast enlargement and tender nipples. A few men taking PC-SPES have developed blood clots, so some doctors prescribe a blood thinner to take along with the herbs.
Another drawback is the expense. A month's supply of PC-SPES capsules costs $300-$600, and no one yet knows how long patients must use them.
Still, faced with almost certain death, many patients take on the risk and expense willingly. When Mario Menelly of Bellmore, N.Y., was 43, doctors found that his cancer had spread from his prostate to nearby lymph nodes. Where a healthy man's PSA count rarely goes above 4, Menelly's had climbed to over 100. "Doctors' best guesses were that I had two to four years to live," says Menelly. "I started taking nine capsules a day. Within sixty days, my PSA went from 122 down to 0.6. Other tests and imaging have shown tumors in my seminal vessels and lymph glands are no longer there."
Menelly now reports "feeling great." He has started a prostate cancer survivor website and is looking forward to returning to his job as a utility company manager.
As for Chen, she now works as a research associate professor at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y. She is currently working to reformulate PC-SPES in hopes of using it against breast and colon cancers -- killers that have touched just about everyone's relatives.
Charles Downey is a journalist, magazine writer, and content provider in Southern California who frequently writes about medicine and early childhood development for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He has also written for Reader's Digest, Playboy, McCall's, Woman's Day, Boys' Life and many other publications on four continents. He lives and works in Southern California and is the father of a grown child.
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