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Milk vetch as an anticancer agent

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Chinese milk vetch (Callie Jones)Milk vetches are flowering plants that derive their name from a belief that they increase milk yield when fed to goats. Britain has two native species, liquorice milk vetch (Astragalus glycyphyllos) and purple milk vetch (A danicus). Dried and powdered roots of Astragalus, particularly Asian species, are the source of the suspending agent gum tragacanth.

Milk vetches have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine, usually mixed with other herbs. Although all parts of the plant contain active ingredients, the roots are traditionally used because they are where the greatest concentration of active compounds occur.

Research into possible use as an anticancer agent has concentrated on triterpine glycosides known as saponins, which in vitro research has shown to induce apoptosis in human cancer cells from the liver and colon, as well as in erythroleukaemia cells, by acting on the NAG-1 gene, which plays a complex but poorly understood role in several human diseases, including cancer. Increased expression of the NAG-1 gene by drugs or dietary compounds appears to prevent the development of certain types of cancers in mouse models. Research has demonstrated an abolition of tumour-induced macrophage suppression by the milk vetch saponins, which allow the host’s macrophages to invade the site and participate in the inflammatory response and destroy the tumour cells.

Research carried out in China on patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer, comparing a conventional cocktail of anticancer drugs with the same combination, the addition of milk vetch extract, showed an increase in remission time and one-year survival rates, as well as an increased quality of life, with a reduction in symptoms of fatigue, nausea, vomiting, and pain.

Further reading

1 Duan P, Wang Z. Clinical study on effect of Astragalus in efficacy enhancing and toxicity reducing of chemotherapy in patients of malignant tumor. Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi 2002;22:515–7.
2 Zou YH, Liu XM. Effect of Astragalus injection combined with chemotherapy on quality of life in patients with advanced nonsmall cell lung cancer. Zhongguo Zhong Xi Yi Jie He Za Zhi 2003;23:733–5.
3 Guo L, Bai SP, Zhao L, Wang XH. Astragalus polysaccharide injection integrated with vinorelbine and cisplatin for patients with advanced non-small cell lung cancer: effects on quality of life and survival. Medical Oncology 2012;29:1656–62.
4 Chen HW, Lin IH, Chen YJ et al. A novel infusible botanically-derived drug, PG2, for cancer-related fatigue: A phase II double-blind, randomized placebo-controlled study. Clinical and Investigative Medicine 2012;35:E1–E11.
There is also more general information on the Complementary and Alternative Medicine for Cancer website at


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