Like many things in the holistic medicine movement, the UCSF Tibetan Medicine Breast Cancer project resulted from one person's direct personal encounter. In this case, it was cytogeneticist Helene Smith.
Dr. Smith was director of the California Pacific Medical Center's cancer clinic in San Francisco, when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer. "She was interested in alternative medicine, including Tibetan medicine, and she had seen Dr. Dhonden," recalls Debu Tripathy, MD, the oncologist who directed the study. Dr. Smith, who died before the trial began, was instrumental in bringing the two medical worlds together.
Dr. Dhonden had never participated in a biomedical clinical trial. His years of clinical experience told him he could benefit people with cancers, including breast cancer, but he had little knowledge of research methodologies.
The Tibetan medicine project is but one aspect of research on Asian therapies ongoing at UCSF. Dr. Tripathy said he and his colleagues are doing biochemical analyses of herbs used in traditional systems. They've tested extracts from traditional Chinese herbs for cancer against various breast cancer cell lines, including estrogen receptor-positive and negative types.
"There are a lot of interesting compounds," he said, noting that teas made from many of these herbs show in vitro cell growth inhibition on the order of 80%–90%.