Age-old compound, modern-day use

School of Medicine scientists test properties of ancient herb as supplement for chemotherapy

A natural compound found in rhubarb that’s been used for millennia in traditional Chinese medicine might find modern day use as a complementary treatment with a cancer chemotherapy agent.

Biomedical scientists at USC’s School of Medicine are using a grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health to determine the extent to which emodin could help relieve some of the side effects of 5 fluorouracil, one of the first chemotherapy agents developed in the 1950s and still in use today. 5FU kills cancer cells effectively but, like many chemotherapy agents, also attacks healthy, fast-multiplying cells in the liver, spleen and nerves, says Alexander Sougiannis, a Ph.D. biomedical sciences student at the School of Medicine.

Emodin seems to modulate the inflammation caused by 5FU and could potentially improve quality of life for colon cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, he says.

“With 5FU and many other chemotherapy agents, a chronic immune response is stimulated in the body that causes a lot of inflammation,” Sougiannis says. “Emodin tamps down the inflammation — though no one understands the molecular mechanisms yet — and it also seems to help reduce the tumor burden.”

It’s believed that emodin might help regulate the microenvironment of the gut, Sougiannis says, adding that changes in gut bacteria play a significant role in the cause of colon cancer and chemotherapy toxicity and might drive the disease pathology.

“We believe emodin may help reverse this ‘dysbiosis’ or microbial imbalance to help reduce the tumor burden and the detrimental effects of chemotherapy,” he says.

Sougiannis is working in the laboratory of Angela Murphy, an associate professor in pathology, microbiology and immunology, and would like to see the research progress to a formal clinical trial to better determine emodin’s effectiveness in reducing symptoms associated with inflammation. He also wants to do research that determines the molecular mechanisms  by which emodin works. For now, those mechanisms remain a mystery.

Sougiannis wasn’t even planning to become a cancer researcher. But when he started a master’s program in exercise science at Carolina, he met Raja Fayad who directed the Integrative Immunology of Inflammation and Cancer Laboratory.

Fayad’s work in the laboratory inspired Sougiannis to explore cancer research as a career path. Now more than halfway through a doctoral program in biomedical science at USC’s School of Medicine, Sougiannis is embracing the legacy of the late professor’s research.

“Every day is an adventure in research,” Sougiannis says. “I enjoy coming here every day. What drives you forward is knowing that one more experiment might get you closer to that answer you’re looking for.”

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