One way of treating breast cancer is to use drugs that suppress the effects of hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone that could potentially promote the growth of the tumour. Over half of the women who undergo hormone therapy experience hot flushes, with some experiencing up to 30 hot flushes per day.
Since Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is not an option to control the hot flushes, the Manchester researchers, led by Professor Alex Molassiotis, will investigate the effect of a daily herbal supplement, donated by industry, to see if it can alleviate the symptoms or stop the occurrence of the hot flushes.
"It is hoped that the herbal remedy will be simpler and cheaper to take, as well as more effective, thus improving the lives of the women who need all their energy to fight the disease," said Molassiotis.
Professor Molassiotis refused to name the herb in question, explaining that the researchers did not want the women in the trial knowing the identity which may tempt some of them to supplement themselves outside of the trial.
However, Molassiotis did reveal that the herb was a member of the mint family, found in most kitchens and traditionally used by Mediterranean women undergoing the menopause.
According to Professor Molassiotis' vague description, a logical option is the herb, sage. Other possibilities include motherwort and Vitex agnus castus. Black cohosh is also extensively used in some countries to alleviate the symptoms of the menopause, but this has been reported to interact with cancer treatments. It should also be stressed however that NutraIngredients.com cannot be certain of the identity of the "secret herb".
No interactions with the cancer therapy is expected, said Molassiotis, especially at the low-doses to be used in this trial.
The researchers are in the process of recruiting 170 volunteers from the Greater Manchester and Cheshire area for the randomised, double-blind trial, and Molassiotis told NutraIngredients.com that the results will be available in about two years.
This is not the first time, Molassiotis says, that the herb has been used in a clinical trial, with one report about 20 years ago reporting "fantastic results."
A search of PubMed revealed that a small clinical trial, published in the Italian-language Minerva ginecologica (1998, Vol. 50, pp. 207-211), investigated the effects of sage and alfalfa on hot flushes and night sweats of 30 menopausal women. Twenty women reported a complete halt in the occurrence of the flushes and sweats, with a futher four reporting a "good improvement" and the other six reporting a reduction in the symptoms.
It should be stressed however that this was not a placebo-controlled, double-blind study.
Exclusion criteria include women taking non-pharmacological products, like dietary supplements, but refusing to discontinue during the trial. Women who also have high intake of phytoestrogens from, for example, soy products, will also be excluded.
Over one million women worldwide are diagnosed with breast cancer every year, with about 400,000 new cases in Europe. China has the lowest incidence and mortality rate of the disease.