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Chinese Herb Targets Immune System

Secret Behind Chang Shan May Lead to New Treatments for Autoimmune Disorders
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 12, 2012 -- A new discovery about a 2,000-year-old Chinese herbal remedy derived from the roots of the blue evergreen hydrangea may pave the way for a new generation of targeted treatments for autoimmune disorders.

A new study suggests the Chinese herb known as Chang Shan selectively weakens the runaway immune response implicated in many autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and psoriasis.

Researchers say the active ingredient in the Chinese herbal remedy, halofuginone (HF), blocks the development of a harmful type of immune cell called Th17 cells without disabling the immune system altogether.

"HF prevents the autoimmune response without dampening immunity altogether," researcher Malcolm Whitman, PhD, professor of developmental biology at Harvard School of Dental Medicine, says in a news release.

New Discovery About Ancient Herb

Previous studies have shown that halofuginone protects against harmful Th17 cells without affecting other beneficial immune cells in mice.

The new study shows the herbal extract triggers a cascade of events critical to immune regulation by letting cells know when they need to conserve resources.

"Think about how during a power outage we conserve what little juice we have left on our devices, forgoing chats in favor of emergency calls," Whitman says. "Cells use similar logic."

By triggering this response, researchers say halofuginone may also help them understand how the pathway affects autoimmune disorders and lead to better treatments.

"This study is an exciting example of how solving the molecular mechanism of traditional herbal medicine can lead both to new insights into physiological regulation and to novel approaches to the treatment of disease," researcher Tracy Keller, an instructor in Whitman's lab, says in the release.

The results appear in Nature Chemical Biology.

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