Pulse of Oriental Medicine: Alternative Medicine That Works for Regular Folks
Chinese Herbs for Leukemia, Cancer Herbs















Chinese Herbs for Leukemia
by Brian Benjamin Carter

Brian is the founder of the Pulse of Oriental Medicine, medical professor at Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, and author of Powerful Body, Peaceful Mind: How to Heal Yourself with Foods, Herbs, and Acupressure.

I purchased some Shan Dou Gen for my father who has leukemia. He has exhausted all forms of conventional treatment and is willing to try a new approach at prolonging his life. Would it be harmful for him to take approximately 1 scoop in boiling water per day? I think this dose is approximately 1/2 gram. I saw some side effects listed on an internet web site, and do not want to cause him any more harm. I also purchased some Reishi Mushroom capsules for him to take. What is your opinion on his taking these two alternative forms of treatment?

Sincerely, CB


Let me first say that if your father really wants to commit to a different treatment, you should get him to a licensed acupuncturist who is trained and qualified to treat with chinese herbs. Just buying some herbs one at a time without any education is not exactly appropriate to treating such a serious disease as leukemia.

If it were a cold or something minor I wouldn't be so bold in saying this- but it's cancer... no one without professional training should take something like that on.

The Materia Medica on Shan Dou Gen

I am curious - where did you get information that those two herbs would help him? You may have gotten the info on shan dou gen from the acupuncture.com article that basically quotes the materia medica (Bensky & Barolet).

This materia medica does say that shan dou gen has been used to treat acute lymphocytic or granuloctic leukemia- but it also says that its effectiveness is not certain. It's also not clear at what dosage it would become toxic.

Usually in chinese medicine we don't do high doses of just one herb- we moderate harsh herbs with other herbs within an herbal formula.

You may be on the right track- though I must say with the qualifications that you should see a licensed herbalist AND that you know you are in a gray no-man's land (treating a life-threatening disease with unproven agents)...

Research on Shan Dou Gen and Cancer

Here are some statements from studies I found on medline:

"We purified the compound that induced apoptosis in human leukemia cells and identified it as sophoranone... Our results indicate that sophoranone might be a unique apoptosis-inducing anticancer agent that targets mitochondria." Int J Cancer 2002 Jun 20;99(6):879-90

"Shan-dou-gen is the dried roots of Sophora subprostata (Leguminosae) and a commonly used Chinese herbal drug in Taiwan. It possesses antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic effects and is used to treat sore throat and acute pharyngolaryngeal infections." J Pharm Biomed Anal 2002 Jun 1;28(5):1005-10

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Research on Reishi and Cancer

Now for the Reishi...

"A series of experiments including cell culture and benzidine staining test were undertaken to investigate the effects of Ganoderma lucidum(Leyss ex Fr) Karst Compound(GLC) on the proliferation and differentiation of K562 leukemic cells... It is concluded that GLC may be a good medicine for leukemia therapy." Hunan Yi Ke Da Xue Xue Bao. 1999;24(6):521-4. Chinese.

"Both the lipids extracted from the germinating spores and the SBGS of G. lucidum had remarkable antitumor effects in a dose-dependent manner, and could significantly inhibit three tumors with an inhibition of 80-90%." Cancer Lett 2002 Aug 28;182(2):155-61

"stimulating the expression of cytokines, especially IL-1, IL-2 and INF-gamma." Bioorg Med Chem 2002 Apr;10(4):1057-62

"The effects of extracts from Ganoderma lucidum spores on the growth of human cervix uteri tumor HeLa cells as well as on the cell cycle and intracellular calcium level were investigated... (1) the breaking of G. lucidum spores improves the release of cytotoxic activity and (2) the effective extract might influence the cell cycle and cellular signal transduction by altering the calcium transport system." So this has implications for the preparation of the reishi you take and its effects. Cell Biol Toxicol 2000;16(3):201-6

These were all in-vitro studies, not in live animals, and not on real human people with leukemia... so although it is encouraging, it is not conclusive.

Chinese Herbs for Pharmacologic vs. Traditional Functions

I must also note that the use of chinese herbs for their pharmacologic properties is a more biomedical approach than a traditional chinese herbal medicine one. Some modern practitioners do both- they incorporate herbs with specific proven biomedical functions into formulas that fit the chinese medical diagnosis for the individual. This ensures better digestion and prevents side effects.

Dosage of the Herbs

The final issue is dosage- none of the studies were clear about how much of either herb would lead to the results you're seeking. Nor did they indicate how much would be toxic or produce dangerous side effects.

In any case, 1g per day is a very low dose. We prescribe powdered (granular) herbal formulas all the time and recommend from 3-5g per day of the formula. So if the total he is taking of both herbs doesn't exceed that, you are well within convention.

But again, I urge you to find a qualified chinese acupuncturist/herbalist to guide the two of you one-on-one (one-on-two) through this maze of herbs... and to watch out for drug-herb interactions, etc. Of course, you need to keep seeing an MD who can monitor him with blood tests, etc.

Here's a link to help you find a chinese medical practitioner.

From Medline, other herbs with effects on leukemia

  • Bai zhu- ovate atractylodes
    Planta Med. 2002 Mar;68(3):204-8.
  • Huang bai
    Prostate. 2001 Dec 1;49(4):285-92. J Infect Dis. 1992 Mar;165(3):433-7.
  • Artemisia asiatica
    Mutat Res 2001 Sep 20;496(1-2):191-8
  • Qing hao
    Int J Oncol 2001 Apr;18(4):767-73 Sci Sin [B] 1984 Apr;27(4):398-406
  • Tripterygium wilfordii hook f
    Blood 2000 Jan 15;95(2):705-10
  • Dan shen
    J Ethnopharmacol 1999 Dec 15;68(1-3):121-7
  • Dong chong xia cao (cordyceps sinensis)
    Life Sci 1997;60(25):2349-59
  • Tripterospermum lanceolatum (Hyata)
    Antiviral Res. 1992 Aug;19(2):119-27.
  • Viscum alniformosanae
    Am J Chin Med. 1991;19(1):33-9.
    Am J Chin Med. 1992;20(3-4):307-12.

I wish you all the best!


My father lives in a rural area of West Virginia. He does not have access to an acupucturist.

I have been doing research on the internet and found the information on Shan Dou Gen on Oncolink. I contacted an Acupuncture & Herb Center and spoke with them about his illness. I requested the purchase of Shan Dou Gen. They recommended the Reishi Mushroom. They also informed me that Chinese Medicine involves a combination of herbs - formulas, but were not reluctant to give me what I requested. My father has AML, was diagnosed in 1998, and is currently 64 yrs. of age. He has undergone extensive chemotherapy on several occasions. He also had a stem cell transplant this year which proved ineffective. He has had two blood transfusions over the past two months, because his red blood cell count is not building on its own. He is weak, but has a good appetite, and tries to get some form of exercise on a daily basis. He has blood work done twice per week and sees his oncologist every month.

At his last visit, my father took a list of the supplements he has been taking to inform his oncologist. Upon review of the list, the oncologist told my father to take whatever natural herbs he wished. He also suggested my father start taking Ginseng. The list my father gave the oncologist included: IP6, Bee Pollen, COQ10, Essiac Tea. Since that appointment, my father has added a multi-vitamin, Ginseng, Shan Dou Gen, and Reishi Mushroom.

I informed my father of the information I found and also the toxicity of Shan Dou Gen. After sending you an e-mail, I contacted the center where I had made the puchase and was told it would not be harmful at the dose they recommended. I also contacted a pharmacist whose main concern was not the toxicity of Shan Dou Gen at this dose, but the effects all the above would have on my father's liver and kidneys, which may already be compromised.

I truly appreciate your response and expertise on the matter. I don't believe that any of these herbs or supplements is a magic bullet, but am always hopeful that one or more will help him without causing harm. I will research the additional herbs you mentioned, and will be in touch. I am very grateful for your help.



Thanks for the follow-up- sometimes people "Q" and I "A" and I never hear anything from them again!

The Misinformed Scared Pharmacist

As for your pharmacist- I think a lot of people got the wrong idea about chinese herbs when we had this aristolochia scare- some supplement manufacturers (the kind who care more about profit than throughness and safety) used the wrong herbs... they used a different plant (the aristolochia kind) which caused kidney failure in a number of people.

"the diet capsules were meant to include the herb Stephania tetrandra (called fangji in Chinese) but instead were made with Aristolochia fangchi (fangchi in Chinese)" - from WebMD (reference below)

No chinese herbalist I know ever uses or would use that aristolochia herb. And it would be wrong to attribute this error to chinese herbs in general - the failure was on the part of a company which makes diet supplements. Some of these companies have no ethics at all.

The commonly used chinese herbs are all much safer than this. I believe some people who are opposed to all alternative medicine seized upon this and used it dishonestly to scare consumers. Others, like your pharmacist, simply have not been fully informed.

But They Don't Tell You About...

By the way, over the counter acetominophin (tylenol) is the most common cause liver failure in hospitals... and that's an OTC med! So we can't generalize that all chinese herbs are safe or unsafe, nor can we say that all OTC's or prescription drugs are safe or unsafe. It depends upon the specific medication and the patient.

All the best!


References (Except for the single herb list above)

  1. Bensky & Barolet. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Materia Medica. Eastland Press, 1993
  2. Int J Cancer 2002 Jun 20;99(6):879-90
  3. J Pharm Biomed Anal 2002 Jun 1;28(5):1005-10
  4. Hunan Yi Ke Da Xue Xue Bao. 1999;24(6):521-4. Chinese.
  5. Cancer Lett 2002 Aug 28;182(2):155-61
  6. Bioorg Med Chem 2002 Apr;10(4):1057-62
  7. Cell Biol Toxicol 2000;16(3):201-6
  8. http://my.webmd.com/content/article/1728.58270
  9. http://www.livertransplant.org/livernewsletter-acetaminophentoxicityinanurbancountyhospital.htm
  10. Crit Care 2002 Apr;6(2):108-10
  11. Postgrad Med 1999 Apr;105(4):81-4, 87, 90

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