Thunder god vine (tirpterygium wilforii)
Thunder god vine (tirpterygium wilforii)Qwert1234/Wikimedia Commons

A Chinese herbal extract may help fight pancreatic cancer, researchers reveal.

Pancreatic cancer that starts in the tissues of the fish-shaped organ in abdomen is the 12th common cancer found across the world and is also ranked seventh in causing death from cancer, according to the World Cancer Research Fund International. Nearly 3, 38,000 new cases of the deadly disease have been reported in 2012.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota in the US found that triptolide, an active component found in the Chinese herb thunder god vine (tirpterygium wilforii), was highly effective in killing pancreatic cancer cells. The constituent worked by suppressing the activity of GRP78, a protein that helps cancer growth.

The activities of GRP78 in mammals entirely depend up on a procedure known as protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) of cells. Failure of the protein to fold faster leads to stress in cells, further paving the way to a cellular process called the "unfolded protein response (UPR)".

Though normally this process helps restore the cell's proteins folding ability, sometimes it causes cell death. In such a situation, the protein GRP78 helps cells survive longer so that the UPR gets enough time to resolve their protein folding issues. These GRP78 proteins are normally found more abundant in cancer cells than normal organs and help the cancer cells to survive more.

For the study, Dr Ashok Saluja and colleagues conducted experiments on human pancreatic cells and tissue. The triptolide treated cancer cells showed better UPR, subsequently leading to cell death.

"Our study shows that although increased expression of GRP78 confers a survival advantage to the tumor cells, prolonged exposure to triptolide induces chronic ER stress, which eventually leads to cell death," the authors said in a news release. "In this context, inhibition of GRP78 by activation of the ER stress pathway by triptolide offers a novel mechanism for inhibiting the growth and survival of pancreatic cancer cells."

Findings of the study have been reported in American Journal of Physiology—Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology.

Thunder god vine, a flowering plant that originated in countries like China, Japan and Korea, has been widely used for medical purposes in China from the past 400 years. Following are some scientific-proven health benefits of thunder god vine extracts that are prepared from its skinned root, as provided by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM):

  • Helps fight inflammation, cancer
  • Helps treat rheumatoid arthritis

However, according to the experts, the extracts should be prepared carefully to avoid adverse health outcomes. The plant's leaves, flowers and skin of the root are highly poisonous and can even lead to death. Other side-effects include indigestion, nausea, diarrhoea, upper respiratory tract infections, hair loss, head ache, skin rash, menstrual changes, reduced bone mineral density with prolonged use and male infertility.