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April 10, 2010

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Home » Metro » Health and Science

Researchers show how arsenic works to fight type of leukemia

Shanghai scientists have found how arsenic -- famous as a poison, but long used in traditional Chinese medicine -- treats a certain leukemia by targeting and killing specific proteins that keep the cancer alive.

The discovery, published in yesterday's Science, the US-based scientific journal, offers clues that may lead to treatments for other diseases as well, researchers said.

Unlike chemotherapy, the side effects of arsenic in treating acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) are very low, the researchers said. There is no hair loss or suppression of bone marrow function.

"It is the first time that we finally explained the long-used arsenic therapy ... by modern methods," said Yan Xiaojing, the project's leading researcher at Shanghai Institute of Hematology.

Arsenic, which is known for its strong toxicity, has been used as a traditional Chinese medicine for 2,000 years under the theory of "like cures like."

In early 1990s, doctors in Harbin in northeast China started to use arsenic to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia. Local experts from Shanghai Institute of Hematology further developed the therapy.

But the working mechanism of arsenic and how it interacts with cancer tissues have never been clear -- until local experts used modern technology to find out.

In APL, there is a drop in the production of normal red blood cells and platelets. Until the 1970s, APL was 100 percent fatal and there was no effective treatment.

"The discovery provides evidence for the theory and clinical practice for cancer treatment and will be introduced to research on other cancers," said Chen Saijuan from the Shanghai institute.

"Experiences from this research can be promoted to other Chinese traditional medicines, which have been used for many years but we still don't know their molecular mechanism."

In a commentary in Science, Scott Kogan at the University of California San Francisco Cancer Center wrote that carefully chosen therapy with arsenic may lead to improved outcomes for treating other diseases as well as APL.

"If so, an ancient medicine, revived through careful clinical and biological studies in modern times, will have an even greater impact on human health," wrote Kogan.


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