This ancient Chinese herb could be the next big thing in cancer treatment

For centuries, our global ancestors have used plant-based traditional medicines to treat everything from pain to infection to tumors. And in the modern world, these plant-based remedies often serve as the starting point for pharmaceutical companies to develop new drugs with the same properties.

Many of the drugs we take have their origins in traditional plant medicine. For instance, aspirin can be traced back to willow tree bark. The cancer drug taxol originates from the bark of the Pacific yew tree. And from the leaves of the Madagascar periwinkle plant, we get the chemotherapeutics vinblastine and vincristine.

One of the richest sources of plant-based remedies is traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Scientists have found anticancer drugs obtained from TCM are more effective than chemical synthetic drugs and have less toxic side effects.

That’s why a team of researchers from China and the U.K. are collaborating to unlock the secrets of one of these medicinal herbs. And what they’ve discovered could be a breakthrough for treating this terrible disease…

Tracing the anticancer activity of barbed skullcap

TCM has used the Skullcap genus for centuries to treat different medical conditions. Previous clinical work has shown using preparations based on Scutellaria barbata during chemotherapy can reduce the risk of metastatic tumors, an advanced form of cancer that spreads to other areas of the body.

But until now, previous research had been unable to unlock how the plant produced its cancer-fighting compound which acts against a range of cancer cells.

In this most recent collaboration, led by CEPAMS, a partnership between the John Innes Centre and the Chinese Academy of Science and supported by The Royal Society, the researchers used DNA sequencing technology to assemble the complete genomic sequence of the barbed skullcap, scientifically known as Scutellaria barbata.

This genetic information — a microevolutionary history — gave researchers exactly what they needed to know about the plant’s powerful anti-cancer compound: scutebarbatine A.

Professor Cathie Martin, Group Leader at the John Innes Centre, and one of the authors of the study said, “We have found that the primary metabolite has activity against cancer cells but not non-cancer cells which is especially important for an anti-cancer metabolite. Now we are looking to develop synthetic methods for producing more of the lead compound.”

In TCM, practitioners isolate the medicinal chemistry of the herb by boiling it in water for 2 hours, then drying the extract to produce a powder. That powder is then taken as a decoction or concentrated liquid.

But now, knowing the biochemical pathway behind barbed skullcap’s anticancer activity allows researchers to come closer to synthesizing large quantities of the compound more rapidly and sustainably.

From nature to pharmaceutical

The road to becoming a drug is usually quite long and that alone comes with pros and cons. When pharmaceutical companies patent an active ingredient it can restrict other uses. But with TCM’s long history and knowledge, hopefully, true practitioners will be able to carry on their legacy as a welcomed presence within integrative medicine.

More doctors take an integrative approach to treating cancer than ever before. That means using the best of conventional medicine and traditional therapies. If you or someone you know is interested in the anti-cancer potential of Chinese skullcap, seek out an expert and talk to your physician.

One of the problems with buying “Chinese skullcap” supplements off the shelves of your local health foods store, or online, is that many of these are made using a different type of skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis. Like Scutellaria barbata, Scutellaria baicalensis has shown some anticancer, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. Scutellaria barbata may also be labeled “barbed skullcap” or “ban zhi lian.”

As with any supplement, always follow the manufacturer’s serving suggestion and do not take more than is specified. Chinese skullcap varieties may cause irregular heartbeat, anxiety and mental confusion. It also should not be taken with statin drugs or blood thinners. It may also lower blood pressure, which could be a problem for anyone already on blood pressure-lowering medications.

Editor’s note: Discover how to live a cancer prevention lifestyle — using foods, vitamins, minerals and herbs — as well as little-known therapies allowed in other countries but denied to you by American mainstream medicine. Click here to discover Surviving Cancer! A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding the Causes, Treatments and Big Business Behind Medicine’s Most Frightening Diagnosis!


Discovery of anti-cancer chemistry makes skullcap fit for modern medicine — John Innes Center

The genomes of medicinal skullcaps reveal the polyphyletic origins of clerodane diterpene biosynthesis in the family Lamiaceae — Molecular Plant

Success Story: Taxol — National Cancer Institute

Vinblastine — Science Direct

The aspirin story – from willow to wonder drug — British Journal of Haematology

Scutellaria barbata: Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More — Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center

Current therapeutic role and medicinal potential of Scutellaria barbata in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Western research — Journal of Ethnopharmacology

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.