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A new study found that a fruit used in Chinese medicine contains a very effective compound that could help treat colon cancer. Tao Ming/Xinhua via Getty Images
  • A fruit used in Chinese medicine contains a compound that is very effective against colon cancer, according to a new study.
  • The compound is called Schisandrin B, and is found in a plant known as five-flavor berry or magnolia berry.
  • The anti-tumor compound performed especially well when introduced to late-stage colon cancer cells.
  • The plant is already widely available online, though it should be taken only under medical supervision due to several known adverse drug interactions.

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer is the second-most common cause of cancer among males and females combined. Colon cancer is the third leading cause of death among males and the fourth among females. The ACS estimates that 53,010 Americans will die of colorectal cancers this year.

Colon cancer or colorectal cancer are used interchangeably since rectal cancer typically begins with the formation of polyps in the colon or the rectum.

Deaths from colorectal cancer are declining somewhat due to more prevalent screening, which the ACS recommends beginning at age 45 for people with an average risk of the disease.

As with other types of cancer, early detection of colon cancer is key for successful treatment.

A new study finds that a polyphenol found in a plant used in Chinese medicine known as schisandra or “magnolia berry” could help treat colon cancer, particularly in the disease’s later stages.

The findings were recently published inACS Pharmacology & Translational Science.

Schisandra chinensis, also known as Schisandrin B or Sch B, is a fruit used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to treat liver issues, stomach problems, and as a tonic for boosting vitality.

Sch B grows primarily in the forests of eastern Russia, Northern China, Korea, and in some places in Japan, and goes by several names, including:

  • ishisandra
  • magnolia berry
  • five-flavor berry
  • wu wei zi

Previous research has suggested that Sch B or magnolia berry may contain cancer-fighting properties against breast, liver, ovarian, gallbladder, and gastric cancers.

For the present study, the authors tested Sch B on human colon cancer tumor cells both in vitro and using animal models.

Using various forms of molecular and cellular analysis, the researchers determined that Sch B activated a stress response in the cancer cells related to unfolded and misfolded proteins, which led to cancer cell death. These findings could help explain the mechanism behind the magnolia berry’s cancer-fighting properties.

“Sch B was found to cause cell death via apoptosis — a programmed cell death process instead of a random process — in our human cell and animal models of colon cancer,” study author Dr. Hani El-Nezami, associate professor at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Hong Kong, explained to Medical News Today.

The researchers also identified the involvement of a particular protein, CHOP. When the protein was blocked, Sch B was less effective, suggesting the CHOP protein is somehow critical to Sch B’s ability to fight cancerous tumors.

Sch B also exhibited very low toxicity against healthy cells when compared to currently available cancer drugs.

However, the promising effects of Sch B against late-stage cancer cells remain somewhat mysterious to Dr. El-Nezami.

“We do not know why Schisandrin B is especially effective for the late stage of colon cancer. It was solely based on our observation with the use of colon cancer cell lines with different stages,” he noted.

Dr. Francisco Contreras, director, president, and chairman of the Oasis of Hope Cancer Hospital and Research Center in Tijuana, Mexico, not involved in the study, said the findings are not a total surprise, noting the natural compound in the fruit is backed by sufficient scientific evidence.

“The power of phytochemicals is not new. There is a plethora of research touting [phytochemicals’] benefits in the treatment of cancer, magnolia berry compound being one of them where anti-carcinogenic effects have been observed, such as anti-proliferative (restricting tumor growth) and proapoptotic effects (setting a death sentence to malignant cells).”

— Dr. Francisco Contreras, oncologist

Shisandra supplements are widely available for purchase online. However, adverse interactions with certain medications and shisandra (magnolia berry) have been reported and it should only be taken under a physician’s supervision.

The shisandra used in the new study was obtained commercially and tested without special processing. Dr. Contreras suggested the findings could be replicated in humans, but more studies are needed.

“It is too soon to recommend this fruit for treatment of colon cancer.” Dr. El-Nezami noted.

He added that his research team — in collaboration with the University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Hospital NHS Trust — recently received funding from the Academy of Finland to explore Sch B further using mouse and patient-derived cell culture models.

“We hope the successful demonstration of efficacy in these models will support the initiation of human intervention [and] clinical studies to explore the effects in patients of colon cancer,” Dr. El-Nezami said.

Dr. Contreras said that any medication using Sch B or magnolia flower would have to be approved for patient use in the United States.

Because Sch B is a natural compound, Dr. Contreras suggested that the cost of clinical trials to prove its effectiveness and safety could be insurmountable.

“The only way a laboratory will make [back] such [an] expense,” Dr. Contreras said, “is if they obtain a patent so that it can make its money back. Otherwise, without a patent, any other laboratory can make the product without any money spent.”

“No one will spend $800 million to prove a natural drug to be ‘safe and effective,’” Dr. Contreras said, noting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) cannot extend patents for natural products since they are largely unregulated.

“I hope that in the future, the FDA and similar agencies around the world will find a way to approve natural products fairly and efficiently for the benefit of the millions dying of cancer worldwide. The cost of cancer care would be more effective, less costly, and more humane,” Dr. Contreras concluded.