ĎAlternative' Remedies Can Fight Hepatitis

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A new UC Berkeley study has shown that "alternative" Chinese herbal medicines may not be so alternative after all.

UC Berkeley epidemiology gradaute student Michael McCulloch and his colleagues demonstrated that Chinese herbal medicines-when used in conjunction with standard Western medicines-are significantly more effective in battling chronic hepatitis B than standard Western medicines alone.

"We hope our study will encourage future clinical trials of Chinese herbal medicines and their active components," McCulloch said. "Chronic hepatitis B is a significant worldwide problem, and there is a tremendous need for clinical trials of higher quality."

The traditional Western treatment for hepatitis B today is a drug known as interferon alfa. An interferon is a natural molecule known as a glycoprotein-produced by the body in response to infection-that prevents viral replication.

Chinese herbal treatments are typically a mixture of different plant and root extracts. Two specific substances studied include kurorinone, a root extract, and bufotoxin, which is found on the skin of a particular species of toad.

To measure the effectiveness of a particular treatment against hepatitis B, three factors are usually observed-the presence of the hepatitis B surface antigen, the hepatitis B "e" antigen, and the presence of hepatitis B viral DNA.

An antigen is any foreign substance that stimulates the body to create antibodies, which are part of the body's response to infectious invaders. The presence of antigens or viral DNA is indicative of hepatitis B infection.

Chinese herbal medicines, when used in conjunction with interferon alfa, were found to be almost twice as effective as the interferon by itself-a statistically significant difference.

"There is some research from pharmacology researchers in China suggesting that Chinese herbal medicines enhance the body's own production of interferons," McCulloch said. "Other studies identify active components in herbal medicines that have an anti-inflammatory effect in the liver. There are many research institutions in China working on these questions."

The study, co-authored by UC Berkeley epidemiology professor Jack Colford, set about to analyze and compile existing medical literature from China.

"For practitioners of Chinese medicine not able to read the original Chinese studies, we believe our study will provide the most comprehensive compilation to date of clinical evidence from Chinese journals regarding the treatment of chronic hepatitis B with herbal medicine," Colford said.

"Chinese language clinical studies are only sporadically translated into Western languages, and there is a tremendous need for greater access to these studies."

This study was limited by the quality of reporting in the Chinese studies and should be seen as a starting point for future research, Colford said.

McCulloch hopes to someday analyze the effect of Chinese medicines on breast cancer and lung cancer as well.

"For many decades Chinese medicine has been seen as an 'alternative' form of medicine, something to be used instead of standard care," McCulloch said. "We hope our study will reinforce the message that clinically, one of the best ways to use Chinese medicine is as an effective adjunct to standard care."

The study was published in the Oct. 1 issue of the American Journal of Public Health.


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