Despite a somewhat macabre-sounding name, the Baikal skullcap is a beautiful flower. Even better, its root carries a compound that could boost the fight against cancer.
John Yim (Photo by Thomas Brown)
The plant, called huang qin in Chinese, is a member of the mint family. Its root is one of the most popular extracts used in traditional Chinese medicine, and it contains a compound called baicalein.
Scientists recently have shown that baicalein suppresses several types of cancer. Now City of Hope researchers have found one of the ways it does that: through a protein called interferon regulatory factor-1, or IRF-1.
According to John H. Yim, M.D., associate professor of surgery at City of Hope, the research team happened upon baicalein when they screened a variety of natural extracts to look for compounds that could boost the cancer-fighting activity of IRF-1.
IRF-1 suppresses tumors, can keep cancer cells from growing and spreading and encourages cancer cells to kill themselves, Yim said. “It also makes cancer cells more vulnerable to the immune system.”
Because IRF-1 can act against cancer in different ways, the scientists believe that encouraging IRF-1’s activity could be useful for treating the disease — and perhaps even a tactic for preventing it.
Of all the natural products they checked, baicalein was the most powerful enhancer of IRF-1 activity. In lab tests, it inhibited cancer cells’ growth and showed no toxicity.
“Our hope is that this compound could enhance IRF-1 activity and contribute to cancer therapy without toxic side effects,” Yim said.
The scientific team is the first to connect baicalein to IRF-1 activity. But baicalein has spurred a flurry of cancer research worldwide over the last several years. Within the last year alone, scientists have reported on its effects on pancreatic, colon and lung cancer cells through several mechanisms. It also has shown activity against multiple myeloma as well as prostate and liver cancers in the lab.
Want to know more about herbs and health? Visit the National Center of Complementary and Alternative Medicine online and click “Herbs at a Glance.”