Study of the Week: Chinese Herbal Medicine Increases the Effect of Radiotherapy for Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

Welcome to Study of the Week from Patient Worthy. In this segment, we select a study we posted about from the previous week that we think is of particular interest or importance and go more in-depth. In this story we will talk about the details of the study and explain why it’s important, who will be impacted, and more.

If you read our short form research stories and find yourself wanting to learn more, you’ve come to the right place.


This week’s study is…

Effect of Shengmai Yin on the DNA methylation status of nasopharyngeal carcinoma cell and its radioresistant strains

We previously published about this research in a story titled “Patients with Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma May Benefit From the Chinese Herbal Medicine Shengmai Yin” which can be found here. The study was originally published in the Journal of Pharmaceutical Analysis. You can view the full text of the study here.

This research team was affiliated with NanFang Hospital and Southern Medical University

What Happened?

Shengmai Yin is an herbal medicine consisting of ginseng and other ingredients. Traditionally, it has played a role in ancient Chinese medicine purportedly to ‘replenish qi, restore pulse, promote the production of body fluids, and nourish yin.’ More recently, numerous studies have been conducted on the preparation, indicating that it produces some substantive medical effects, such as modulating the gut microbiome. It may also have benefits for the cardiovascular system. In this most recent study, scientists sought to determine if this herb could enhance the treatment of nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare cancer affecting the throat and nasal cavity.

The most effective treatment for this cancer is radiation therapy, but in some cases, resistance to the treatment develops. However, prior research suggests that certain compounds can function as radiosensitizers, causing the cancer cells to become more susceptible to the treatment. A process called DNA methylation is believed to play a role in radiation sensitivity. The researchers evaluated the methylation activity in two different nasopharyngeal carcinoma cells lines: CNE-2 and CNE-2R. The first is radiation sensitive, while the other is not. 

The scientists initially found that CNE-2R had lower levels of methylated genes. However, when these cells were exposed to Shengmai Yin, the methylation levels increased. One gene that was affected is called TNC, which codes for a certain glycoprotein that is known to play a role in the invasiveness and migration behavior of cancer cells. Previous studies have found that reducing methylation of the gene’s promoter region increases expression of TNC overall. 

The team found that TNC was overexpressed in the CNE-2R cell line when compared to the CNE-2 line. Treatment with Shengmai Yin was able to reduce TNC’s production in the cancer cells. This was the result of increased methylation. Overall, the findings from this study suggest that this ancient herbal medicine has the potential to be an effective and safe radiosensitizer that could be developed as a supplementary treatment alongside radiation therapy for nasopharyngeal carcinoma.

About Nasopharyngeal Carcinoma

Nasopharyngeal carcinoma, also called nasopharynx cancer, is a cancer which originates in the nasopharynx, the region of the throat and nasal cavity. It can occur and people of all ages and different significantly from other head and neck cancers in causes, treatment, and clinical behavior. Men are more likely to get nasopharyngeal carcinoma. The Epstein-Barr virus is believed to be a risk factor. Other aspects, such as genetic background, smoking, and diet, also play a role. This cancer is most common in certain regions of Africa and East Asia. A notable lump, due to swollen lymph nodes, often appears on both sides near the rear of the neck. This is often the first sign; other symptoms include vision problems, facial numbness or pain, sore throat, problems speaking, problems hearing, breathing difficulties, ear infections, and difficulty opening the mouth. Treatments include chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation therapy. To learn more about nasopharyngeal carcinoma, click here.

Why Does it Matter?

Nasopharyngeal cancer that becomes resistant to treatment is much more likely to ultimately kill the person it’s affecting. Any breakthroughs that can help improve the effectiveness of treatment can help patients see greater quality of life, a better chance at remission, and longer survival times:

“First, besides reducing the side effects of radiation, it can increase the efficacy of radiotherapy and reduce the side effects of radiotherapy in NPC; second, SMY, because of its anti-tumorigenic effect, can serve as a preventive supplement for a community that always relied on the healing power of traditional medicine. Third, SMY provides an alternative for developing a cost-effective ‘radiosensitizer’ for the pharmaceutical industry.’’ – Ying Lv, MD, Nanfang Hospital, China

These findings are especially important for the Chinese population, in which rates of this cancer, particularly in South China, are among the highest in the world. Ultimately, the findings from this study are a starting point for trials or the development of a supplement based on Shengmai Yin that could be used alongside radiation treatments. 

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