A natural lung cancer treatment? Researchers are testing a herbal supplement

The supplement even shows promise for treating diabetes.
Loukia Papadopoulos
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Lung cancer is a devastating disease that is responsible for around 1.8 million deaths every year. It causes chronic inflammation and other conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma.

Now, researchers may have found a new treatment in the form of a herbal supplement called berberine, a natural compound found in plants such as barberry and goldenseal, according to a press release by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) published on Monday. The substance, they found in lab research, suppresses the proliferation of lung cancer cells and reduces airway inflammation and damage to healthy lung cells exposed to chemicals from cigarette smoke, a leading cause of lung cancer.

Suppressing lung cancer and reducing inflammation

“Berberine has shown therapeutic benefits for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. We were keen to explore its potential in supressing lung cancer and reducing inflammation,” said lead researcher Dr Kamal Dua, a senior lecturer in Pharmacy and Senior Research Fellow, Australian Research Centre in Complementary and Integrative Medicine (ARCCIM), Faculty of Health at UTS.

The use of berberine for therapeutic purposes is not entirely new. It has long been a practice in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. However, it does come with some drawbacks such as a lack of water solubility and absorption in the gut and toxicity at higher doses.

Dua managed to overcome these issues through the development of liquid crystalline nanoparticles, a revolutionary drug delivery system that encapsulates berberine in tiny soluble and biodegradable polymer balls to improve both safety and effectiveness. The end result is a process that is so powerful that it can even counteract years of exposure to cigarette smoke. 

This is because berberine, according to the research, "suppresses the generation of inflammatory chemicals, called reactive oxygen species, which cause damaging effects to cells. It also modulates genes involved in inflammation, oxidative stress, and reduced premature cell senescence."

The researchers came to this conclusion by measuring the mRNA levels of tumor-associated genes and protein expression levels. Their work "showed that berberine upregulates tumor suppressor genes, and downregulates proteins involved in cancer cell migration and proliferation."

Inhibiting oxidative stress

This is not the only study to highlight the many benefits of berberine for lung cancer treatment. The work is a continuation of research recently published in the journal Antioxidants.

This work was also led by Dua and found that "berberine can inhibit oxidative stress, and reduce inflammation and cellular senescence induced by cigarette smoke extract in lab-grown human healthy lung cells."

What are the next steps for this promising treatment? Dua is seeking to determine the best formulation and delivery system for his berberine nanoparticles so that the innovation can make it to hospitals everywhere. If this work proves successful, it will provide a new avenue for treating a disease that has plagued many for years.

The study has been published in the journal Pharmaceutics.

Study abstract: 

Non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) is the most common form of lung cancer, which is a leading cause of cancer-related deaths worldwide. Berberine is an isoquinoline alkaloid that is commercially available for use as a supplement for the treatment of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. However, the therapeutic benefits of berberine are limited by its extremely low bioavailability and toxicity at higher doses. Increasing evidence suggests that the incorporation of drug compounds in liquid crystal nanoparticles provides a new platform for the safe, effective, stable, and controlled delivery of the drug molecules. This study aimed to formulate an optimized formulation of berberine–phytantriol-loaded liquid crystalline nanoparticles (BP-LCNs) and to investigate the in vitro anti-cancer activity in a human lung adenocarcinoma A549 cell line. The BP-LCN formulation possessing optimal characteristics that was used in this study had a favorable particle size and entrapment efficiency rate (75.31%) and a superior drug release profile. The potential mechanism of action of the formulation was determined by measuring the mRNA levels of the tumor-associated genes PTENP53, and KRT18 and the protein expression levels with a human oncology protein array. BP-LCNs decreased the proliferation, migration, and colony-forming activity of A549 cells in a dose-dependent manner by upregulating the mRNA expression of PTEN and P53 and downregulating the mRNA expression of KRT18. Similarly, BP-LCNs also decreased the expression of proteins related to cancer cell proliferation and migration. This study highlights the utility of phytantriol-based LCNs in incorporating drug molecules with low GI absorption and bioavailability to increase their pharmacological effectiveness and potency in NSCLC.

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