Milk Thistle May Reduce Chemo-Related Liver Damage

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Results of the first trial to test milk thistle in children who were undergoing chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) show that the herb seems to reduce liver damage related to treatment. More specifically, milk thistle reduced liver inflammation, which is a common complication among children who receive chemotherapy for ALL.

Milk thistle has been a mainstay of herbal medicine in various disciplines for treatment of liver disorders, including chronic hepatitis (liver inflammation) and liver cirrhosis. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, milk thistle is also used to lower cholesterol, reduce insulin resistance in people who have type 2 diabetes and cirrhosis, and to reduce the growth of some cancer cells.

The biologically active part of milk thistle is believed to be silymarin, which is a mixture of components that include silybinin, also known as silibinin or silybin. This factor is extracted from the seeds and then used to prepare capsules, extracts, and infusions (strong teas).

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Because there are no effective ways currently to protect the liver from damage related to chemotherapy, clinicians often reduce a patient’s chemotherapy doses. This trade-off can reduce a patient’s chances of achieving complete remission of their cancer. According to Dr. Kara M. Kelly, a pediatric oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, more patients recently have been opting to not reduce their chemotherapy and thus risk liver damage, but the long-term consequences of this approach are unknown.

In the new study, 50 children who were receiving chemotherapy for ALL were given either milk thistle capsules or placebo capsules for one month while they were undergoing maintenance treatment. Upon entering the study, all of the children had signs of liver inflammation that was the result of their previous round of chemo.

At the end of the trial, investigators compared the two groups of children and found that those who had been taking milk thistle had lower levels of two liver enzymes, a sign of lesser inflammation of the liver. Children who had taken the milk thistle were less likely to need their chemotherapy dose reduced: 61 percent required an adjustment compared with 72 percent of children who had taken placebo.

Although the difference between the two groups of children was not statistically significant, Dr. Kelly noted in the Wiley press release that “Milk thistle needs to be studied further, to see how effective it is for a longer course of treatment, and whether it works well in reducing liver inflammation in other types of cancers and with other types of chemotherapy.” Dr. Kelly also warned that cancer patients who are receiving chemo should not use milk thistle on their own without first consulting their physician.

SOURCES:
Cancer, online Dec. 14, 2009
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Wiley press release, Dec. 14, 2009

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