Chinese herbal extract may help kill off pancreatic cancer cells, researchers say

Pancreatic cancer cells may be killed off by a Chinese herbal extract, researchers have discovered.

According to the National Cancer Institute, it is estimated that 46,420 new cases of pancreatic cancer cases will be diagnosed in 2014, with 39,590 of these cases proving fatal. Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. The disease is devastating due to rapid cell multiplication and tumor growth.

A protein known as GPR78 is highly abundant in cancer cells, compared to normal cells, and is responsible for preventing cells from being destroyed. It is believed that this protein plays a key role in the ability for pancreatic cancer cells to survive, despite treatment.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota discovered a Chinese extract from the herb Tirpterygium wilforii, which is found to potentially suppress GRP78 and inevitably cause the death of pancreatic cancer cells. The extract, known as triptolide, has been previously shown to have an effect on the viability of pancreatic cancer cells, and their ability to multiply with such stamina.

Lead study author Ashok Saluja, Ph.D., and associates discovered that the “unfolded protein response (UPR)” – which helps boost a cell’s protein-folding ability that allows it to function properly – worked well in triptolide-treated cells, leading to cell death in malfunctioning cells.

“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. 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,” said Saluja in a statement.

The findings of the study are published in the American Journal of Physiology—Gastrointestinal and Liver Physiology.

Image: Tirpterygium wilforii