Technion: Use caution mixing cancer treatment with herbs

“Unmonitored use of herbs for patients undergoing chemotherapy endangers them.”

Marijuana plants are seen in a MedReleaf facility. (photo credit: ALEXANDER REPETSKI)
Marijuana plants are seen in a MedReleaf facility.
(photo credit: ALEXANDER REPETSKI)
The common belief that “herbal medicines” are not dangerous to health is wrong, according to a study just published in the American Cancer Society journal Cancer by researchers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology’s Rappaport Medical Faculty working in rare cooperation with doctors from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other Arab countries.
They report on a “new model that bridges between herbal medicine and conventional cancer treatment.”
Associate Prof. Eran Ben-Arye, who was among the main researchers, said, “Unmonitored use of herbs for patients undergoing chemotherapy endangers them.”
The new approach to integrate herbs safely in oncological treatment was born out of rare Israel-Arab cooperation, said Ben-Arye, who added that complementary or integrative medicine is playing a growing role in the lives of many patients.
“The use of herbal medicines is especially prominent among cancer patients for various reasons: efforts to improve their quality of life, the desire to reduce the side effects of conventional cancer treatments and, of course, the hope for a cure when oncologists are unable to promise one.”
These patients thus mistakenly believe that “natural” treatments are not harmful, he continued.
“Herbal medicines are based in many cases on unreliable information from an unprofessional and sometimes charlatan source. In addition, patients who take herbs while undergoing chemotherapy without telling their oncologists could significantly endanger their health and life,” he stressed.
The journal article focused on the safety or lack of safety of 44 herbs used by cancer patients to “complement” conventional treatment. The scientists identified significant safety problems in 29 of them. Toxicity and side effects were found in 18; conflicts with cancer drugs in 15; and increased chemotherapeutic activity liable to endanger the patient in seven plants.
The presumption that herbs are “innocent, natural and free of risk” – that natural compounds can do no damage – is far from the truth, said Ben-Arye.
“The presumption that herbs should not be used during oncological treatment – that it is guilty until proven innocent – is also applicable in modern societies like Israel, whose population tend to use a lot of complementary medicine.”
The results of the study accord with previous research at the Technion and the multidisciplinary MERGIO (Middle- Eastern Research Group in Integrative Oncology) studies.
As a result, the Technion scientists suggest integrating into hospital oncology departments physicians with experience in complementary and conventional medicine. They would be obliged to use traditional medicine and evidence-based complementary medicine to ensure patients’ safety.
A total of 17 authors from Israel and seven additional researchers from other Middle Eastern countries – to which 339 oncologists, nurses and other medical staffers are affiliated – cooperated on the MERGIO project, which in recent years has formed the Middle East Cancer Consortium (MECC).