Page last updated at 12:25 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2004

Alternative cancer cures warning

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St John's Wort interacts with standard drugs

Cancer patients who use complementary medicine could be causing themselves more harm than good, experts suggest.

Delegates at the European Breast Cancer Conference warned that some therapies have not been rigorously tested and could even be dangerous.

They also suggest that some remedies may react adversely with conventional breast cancer drugs.

Research shows increasing use of alternative remedies among cancer patients in Europe.

However, the safety of many complementary and alternative therapies (Cams) is not fully understood, experts revealed at the Hamburg conference.

"Some Cams, as their name implies, complement conventional treatments, but others have the potential to interact dangerously with drug regimes and both doctors and patients need to be aware of this," said Dr Gillian Bendelow.

Doctors must take account of the likelihood their patients will use Cams when they are considering treatment, she said.

Just because a Cam is not known to cause harm does not mean that it is safe, particularly when administered in conjunction with standard treatments
Dr Eric Winer, breast cancer specialist

Dr Bendelow, an expert in medical sociology at the University of Sussex, said results from various international research studies over the last decade showed Cam take-up ranging from less than 10% to more than 80%.

Dr Eric Winer, a breast cancer specialist from Harvard University in the US, said it was crucial more thorough and properly conducted studies were carried out on Cams.

He said: "Issues of safety with Cams are critical, but in many cases, extensive safety evaluation has not been undertaken.

"Moreover, relatively few Cams have been tested in conjunction with standard treatments and this is a serious problem.

"For instance, some Cams, such as St John's Wort, have been shown to have important and potentially detrimental interactions with standard drugs.

"Just because a Cam is not known to cause harm does not mean that it is safe, particularly when administered in conjunction with standard treatments.

"In addition, some studies have shown that the quality and composition of many Cam products varies substantially."

He said that unlike conventional medicines, Cams do not go through rigorous testing procedures.

Studies of cancer patients and the general public show that those who use Cams tend to be better educated, of higher socio-economic status, female and younger than those who do not.

They may decide to use Cams without consulting practitioners due to the growing availability of therapies over-the-counter and on the internet.

Dr Winer said treatments which improve quality of life "clearly have a place".

But he said any Cam which is to be used widely must be shown to be safe, especially if it is being used with another therapy, and that it has some beneficial impact on the patient.

The Research Council for Complementary Medicine (RCCM) has launched an investigation into whether complementary medicine can help treat cancer.

The three-year, £300,000 project, funded by the Department of Health, will also investigate whether Cams can be used to help patients with coronary heart disease, mental illness and chronic conditions.

RCCM chairman Professor Mike Saks said: "The RCCM project on Cam and health priorities marks a significant watershed in research into this area, which is relevant to some of the most important health challenges in this country.

"It is part of 20 years of ground-breaking work in the Cam research field by the RCCM and may help to pave the way towards the greater integration of Cam into the NHS."

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