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Feature

Herbs--Japanese hot flash remedy

University researchers have tested a Japanese herb/mushroom combination for the ability to curb hot flashes.

Blending tradition and science

Researchers at the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing put herbal remedies to the test

By Deane Morrison

Dec. 15, 2006

The next miracle drug may be right under your nose, hidden in a common herbal remedy. Obviously, this is something doctors would love to know, but much of the evidence for the efficacy of herbal remedies is merely anecdotal. That's why researchers at the University's Center for Spirituality and Healing (CSH) have launched studies to determine, through rigorous science, the efficacy of promising herbal preparations. In 2004 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the center $2.3 million to study whether turkey tail mushroom extract can boost and maintain breast cancer patients' immune responses after radiation therapy. University researchers are also completing a study of an herbal remedy for hot flashes and are in the planning stages of a study to test tea tree oil as an aid to wound healing. What binds these three projects is that University faculty obtained Investigational New Drug (IND) status, allowing human testing, for the herbal remedies from the Food and Drug Administration. At the time it was awarded, the turkey tail grant also placed the University among only three institutions to receive this type of grant since the NIH began the program in 2003. As part of the grant, the center is also designated as a Developmental Center for Research on Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Common mushroom, uncommon effects

The turkey tail is a common mushroom that looks just like its name. Japanese doctors use it to boost the prospects of several types of cancer patients.

"This is the first time turkey tail mushroom has been studied in breast cancer patients," says Slaton.

"Medicinal mushrooms have been used as a food supplement for many years, yet there is no basic science research in this country studying them," says Joel Slaton, associate professor of urologic surgery and principal investigator for the grant. The project has begun with observations of how the immune systems of breast cancer patients respond after standard chemotherapy or radiation treatment. In February or March, the researchers will begin recruiting patients to determine the best-tolerated dose of the mushroom, which is given as a pill. Carolyn Torkelson, assistant professor of family practice and community health, will be the principal investigator of that study and a subsequent study to determine the mushroom's ability to improve outcomes in patients undergoing standard treatments. "This is the first time turkey tail mushroom has been studied in breast cancer patients," says Slaton. "We're studying its mechanisms of action." It appears, says Slaton, that substances in the mushroom activate cells of immune system called natural killer cells, which attack cancer cells. Working with the University on the project are researchers from Bastyr University in Washington state, a leader in studies of naturopathic medicine, and Fungi Perfecti Inc., an industry partner and supplier of the pills. Slaton's Bastyr colleagues are studying the effects of certain compounds found in turkey tail mushroom in healthy humans. The study also involves researchers from the University's Cancer Center.

Stamping out staph

In certain areas of Australia grows a tree whose leaves yield a distilled oil, called tea tree oil, that is in wide use an antibacterial and antifungal agent. Linda Halc?n, associate professor of nursing, wants to find out if it could speed the healing of wounds by controlling infections of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. The particular target is staph infections resistant to methicillin, one of the antibiotics of choice. Halc?n plans to focus primarily on foot wounds in people with diabetes. (Diabetes can cut off circulation to pain nerves, leaving patients unable to tell when their feet are being rubbed raw.)

Getting involved

If you're a breast cancer patient and would like information about participating in the turkey tail mushroom study, call (612) 625-2956. Carolyn Torkelson is also seeking patients for a study of evening oil of primrose and vitamin E as a treatment for premenstrual breast pain. For more information, call her at (612) 625-8718. The study of tea tree oil and wound healing is not yet recruiting subjects. The hot flash study is complete.

"I think more than 50 percent of hospital staph infections are resistant to methicillin," says Halc?n. "It's mainly from overuse of antibiotics. Some studies suggest tea tree oil is as good as other topical products, but dries the skin less. Studies in other countries show it tends to be harder on infectious bacteria and leave normal skin bacteria relatively intact." Halc?n has an NIH grant for a pilot study to develop relationships with wound clinics and devise a plan to recruit patients for clinical studies. She is working with researchers at Mayo Clinic and three other Twin Cities hospitals: Veterans Administration, Park-Nicollet and Abbott-Northwestern. In the spring, she hopes to ask NIH for funding to study the mechanism by which tea tree oil assists in healing wounds.

Cooling hot flashes

A third herbal with IND status is a preparation of four herbs and a mushroom. Known by its Japanese name, keishi bukuryo gan, it is a prescription medication, drunk as a tea, that has long been used by Japanese women to control hot flashes. A University study of its effectiveness led by Gregory Plotnikoff, an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics, has been completed; results are expected soon. The fact that the University has three herbal preparations with IND status speaks to the pioneering spirit of its faculty and staff, says Halc?n "The Center for Spirituality and Healing is unique," she says. "I've found that throughout the University, people are open to new things that could improve care."