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Fighting fire with fire: Poisonous Chinese herbal medicine for cancer therapy
Wang SP1; Wu X2; Tan M1; Gong J1; Tan W1; Bian BL2; Chen MW1; Wang YT1
Source PublicationJournal of Ethnopharmacology


Following the known principle of "fighting fire with fire", poisonous Chinese herbal medicine (PCHM) has been historically used in cancer therapies by skilled Chinese practitioners for thousands of years. In fact, most of the marketed natural anti-cancer compounds (e.g., camptothecin derivatives, vinca alkaloids, etc.) are often known in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and recorded as poisonous herbs as well. Inspired by the encouraging precedents, significant researches into the potential of novel anticancer drugs from other PCHM-derived natural products have been ongoing for several years and PCHM is increasingly being recognized as a gathering place for promising anti-cancer drugs. The present review aimed at giving a rational understanding of the toxicity of PCHM and, especially, providing the most recent developments on PCHM-derived anti-cancer compounds.


Information on the toxicity and safety control of PCHM, as well as PCHM-derived anti-cancer compounds, was gathered from the articles, books and monographs published in the past 20 years.


Based on an objective introduction to the CHM toxicity, we clarified the general misconceptions about the safety of CHM and summarized the traditional experiences in dealing with the toxicity. Several PCHM-derived compounds, namely gambogic acid, triptolide, arsenic trioxide, and cantharidin, were selected as representatives, and their traditional usage and mechanism of anti-cancer actions were discussed.


Natural products derived from PCHM are of extreme importance in devising new drugs and providing unique ideas for the war against cancer. To fully exploit the potential of PCHM in cancer therapy, more attentions are advocated to be focused on their safety evaluation and mechanism exploration.

KeywordPoisonous Chm Cancer Therapy Toxicity Safety Novel Pchm-derived Compounds
Indexed BySCI
WOS Research AreaPlant Sciences ; Pharmacology & Pharmacy ; Integrative & Complementary Medicine
WOS SubjectPlant Sciences ; Chemistry, Medicinal ; Integrative & Complementary Medicine ; Pharmacology & Pharmacy
WOS IDWOS:000301998300002
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Cited Times [WOS]:100   [WOS Record]     [Related Records in WOS]
Document TypeJournal article
CollectionInstitute of Chinese Medical Sciences
Affiliation1.State Key Laboratory of Quality Research in Chinese Medicine, Institute of Chinese Medical Sciences, University of Macau, Macau 999078, China
2.Institute of Chinese Materia Medica, China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, Beijing 100700, China
First Author AffilicationInstitute of Chinese Medical Sciences
Recommended Citation
GB/T 7714
Wang SP,Wu X,Tan M,et al. Fighting fire with fire: Poisonous Chinese herbal medicine for cancer therapy[J]. Journal of Ethnopharmacology,2012,140(1):33-45.
APA Wang SP.,Wu X.,Tan M.,Gong J.,Tan W.,...&Wang YT.(2012).Fighting fire with fire: Poisonous Chinese herbal medicine for cancer therapy.Journal of Ethnopharmacology,140(1),33-45.
MLA Wang SP,et al."Fighting fire with fire: Poisonous Chinese herbal medicine for cancer therapy".Journal of Ethnopharmacology 140.1(2012):33-45.
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