By Walt Jaschek
[This is the second in a series of articles on modern breakthroughs in science, commissioned by Sigma-Aldrich and its agency, BigWideSky, as content for “Tesseract,” a planned enewsletter intended for its clients in academia and scientific research. I tried to speak in the language of the audience, but to employ a style warm and human.]
It has no lighted parking, no drive-through pharmacy and no giant displays of shampoo, but make no mistake: ginseng is a drugstore.
“A virtual drugstore,” clarifies Laura Murphy, PhD, Associate Professory of Physiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Medicine. Dr. Murphy’s research lab has released a series of groundbreaking findings relating ginseng to the slower growth of cancer cells.
“Ginseng has 30 different ginsenocides, supponent glycosides, polysaccharides, plus fiber and protein,” says Dr. Murphy. “There are 50 different compounds that affect the body, all through unique mechanisms. Working with ginseng is complex and challenging.”
Tan and gnarled, ginseng root has a forked shape, resembling human legs – hence its original Chinese name renshen, or “man root.” Central to Eastern medicine for 4,000 years for its many alleged healing properties, the chemically rich Panex quinquefolius is now under the microscope in labs throughout the world – notably in Dr. Murphy’s own.
But her recent news-making headlines about ginseng started years ago with another herb altogether. “In the 90s, we started doing research on the neuroendocrine effects of cannabinoids,” says Dr. Murphy, editor of a book on the subject. “We were treating animals with marijuana and looking at effects on male copulatory behavior.” (Side note: They have an inhibitory effect.)
“In putting together that cannabinoids paper, we saw that ginseng was anecdotally reported to stimulate libido. We extended the project to include it and I couldn’t believe the results. We did it two more times, same results.”
Newly intrigued by ginseng, Dr. Murphy tightened her focus on the science of the storied root. She learned Asian researchers were doing most of the recent clinical work, and most of that was about ginseng’s effectiveness in treating cancer cells. “It made me wonder if the discussed cancer-affecting qualities could be confirmed in the research lab.”
An endocrinologist, Dr. Murphy began her lab’s project with a supply of human breast cancer cells grown for researchers. When she and her students treated some of these cells with an American ginseng extract, they found this: the higher the doses, the slower the cancer cells grew. With a high enough dose, they could actually stop the cells from growing.
“It was consistent and repetitive,” says Dr. Murphy. “A very clean result.”
With similar findings came increased funding: from the university, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute, the Penny Severns Fund, and the National Center for Complementary Alternative Medicine. The work expanded quickly.
“We wanted to see if we could get the same results in an animal as we got in a Petri dish, and we did. It was the first time an effect in animals has been document,” Dr. Murphy says.
Next up for her lab: studies on the relationship between ginseng and chemotherapy. “We submitted a grant proposal to the NCI that would involve us looking at ginseng’s chemo-preventive effects. Can ginsengs be used concurrent with chemotherapy drugs?”
In all her with with ginseng and cancer, Dr. Murphy cites a challenge within a challenge: molecular pathway management. “As the ginsenocides and polysaccharides act on the cancer cell, a lot of pathways are affected. We use Panorama arrays from Sigma-Aldrich. It provides a system which deals with signal transduction pathways, cell signaling and apotois. The Panorama arrays are quite specific to the pathways we’re looking for.”
As our interview was concluding, we just had to know: does Dr. Murphy herself take ginseng?
“Yes. I make a tea from the raw root,” she says, laughing. “I like the taste of it and believe in its restorative properties. I believe if you’re a healthy person, it’s good for you, and if you’re unhealthy, it will make you better.”
Ah. If only a real drugstore made it that easy.
Walt Jaschek wishes.