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Imagine weeding your garden by cutting back the stalks as low to the ground as possible, then leaving it at that.
Not a very effective technique, is it? If you don’t pull out the roots, those weeds will grow back pretty quickly.
This is a good analogy for a model of cell development known as stem cell theory. And, it turns out that it’s particularly pertinent when it comes to curing cancer.
But this doesn’t just happen in the lab. There are natural substances — including traditional remedies — that can help “dig out” the roots of cancer where it starts: with the stem cell.
Before we talk about those remedies, though, let’s make sure we understand what stem cell theory is all about.
How cancer stem cells work
Based on cancer theories we’ve heard in the past, many of us believe that tumors are the result of one or more mutated cells “going rogue” and producing clones of themselves.
In reality, tumors are highly organized cell groupings. They are composed of different types of cells, many of which are actually benign. Chemotherapy affects each cell type differently.
The deadliest type of cancer cell is the cancer stem cell (CSC) that gives rise to all the other cells in the tumor. Much like the stem of a plant, it’s the place from which everything else grows.
Cancer stem cells are tumor-forming. In other words, they can divide into two, introducing a second root from which a tumor can now grow.
Why stem cells resist chemotherapy
Cancer stem cells are extremely resistant to traditional chemotherapy treatments for three reasons:
They’re hard to find. Only one in 10,000 cells within a tumor are stem cells.
They can dodge the bullet. Cancer stem cells are slow to reproduce. Chemotherapy targets cells that divide more rapidly and make an easier target.
Chemotherapy does not target stem cells. Instead, it goes after rapidly dividing cells that make up the majority of a tumor.
It usually takes at least six rounds of chemotherapy to get rid of all tumors that are present, hopefully without killing the patient.
The problem is that chemo is aimed at killing the less harmful cells, not the ones from which the tumor grows. You can kill 99 percent of cancer cells, but if that 1 percent contains stem cells, it’s all been a waste of time.
This is not that different from what happens in the development of antibiotic-resistant superbugs: even if 99 percent of the bacteria are wiped out, that 1 percent comes back, stronger and more resistant than ever.
Ginsenosides target cancer stem cells
Several studies have shown that ginsenosides, the active compound in ginseng, can target cancer stem cells.
A Korean study found that Rg3, one of the active components of red ginseng, can inhibit breast cancer stem cells from renewing themselves.
Ginsenosides have also been found to suppress the growth of blood vessels that feed certain tumors, known as angiogenesis.
Research continues into the use of these ginseng-derived chemicals as supplements and even alternatives to chemotherapy in the future.
Some ginseng teas have shown measurable amounts of ginsenosides. The trick is being sure your tea is in fact ginseng and not something else entirely, as was found in some samplings of tea bags. If you do find a good source of ginseng tea, steep it longer.
Be aware that ginseng is potent and can interact with some medications, particularly blood thinners, antidepressants, antipsychotics, morphine and some diabetic medications.
- The standardized Korean red ginseng extract and its ingredient ginsenoside Rg3 inhibit manifestation of breast cancer stem cell-like properties through modulation of self-renewal signaling — Journal of Ginseng Research
- Functional mechanism of Ginsenosides on tumor growth and metastasis — Saudi Journal of Biological Sciences
- Determination of ginsenosides Rb1, Rc, and Re in different dosage forms of ginseng by negative ion electrospray liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry — Pub Med