CANCER
January 22, 2010

Milk Thistle for Chemo-Induced Inflammation

The herb milk thistle appears to help keep levels of two key liver enzymes low during chemo.

The age−old folk remedy milk thistle gained some scientific backing this week, as results from a new study in the journal Cancer report that the herb reduced the liver inflammation experienced by patients undergoing chemotherapy. Liver inflammation is a common side−effect of chemotherapy, and there is no known cure for the disorder.

The researchers, led by Kara Kelly at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, say that liver inflammation is a particularly undesirable side−effect, medically speaking, because often chemotherapy doses must be reduced, or halted altogether, to let the inflammation subside.

At the end of the four weeks, the participants who had received milk thistle had lower levels of two key liver enzymes that are associated with liver damage.

To test the potential effect of milk thistle, Kelly and her team followed 50 children who were experiencing liver inflammation associated with chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. They gave the children either milk thistle extract or placebo for 28 days while they underwent their treatment.

At the end of the four weeks, the participants who had received milk thistle had lower levels of two key liver enzymes that are associated with liver damage. The enzyme AST was significantly reduced after treatment, and although elevated levels of the enzyme can be associated with other types of cell damage, it is typically elevated in liver damage. The enzyme ALT, which is a very strong marker of liver inflammation, was also slightly lower in the group that received milk thistle.

The milk thistle treatment didn’t seem to inhibit the effects of the chemotherapy drugs, the researchers found in another set of experiments. This is encouraging news, if the herb is to someday be used as a potential supplement. Kelly says that more research will clearly be needed to sort out dosing and other factors before the remedy is suggested as an effective supplement to chemotherapy. The team is already at work on the next question: whether milk thistle might also be used as a preemptive measure – used to prevent liver damage, rather than to treat it after it has already occurred.

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