Molecular basis of traditional Chinese medicine in cancer chemoprevention

Curr Drug Discov Technol. 2010 Mar;7(1):67-75. doi: 10.2174/157016310791162794.


Cancer is the second leading cause of death, for which current therapeutic approaches are still very limited. Chemoprevention is an important approach to decreasing cancer morbidity and mortality by the use of non-toxic natural or synthetic substances to reverse the processes of initiation and subsequent progression of cancer. A substantial amount of evidence from human, animal and cell line studies has shown that many herbal products used for traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) can exert chemopreventive effects. The underlying theory for TCM to treat or prevent cancer is to bring the patient back to a healthy state by modifying multiple cancer-causing events. Since carcinogenesis involves multiple abnormal genes/pathways, using TCM in cancer chemoprevention may be superior to the agents targeting a single molecular target alone. However, before TCM can be accepted universally as complementary and alternative medicine for cancer treatment and prevention, it is crucial to understand the molecular basis for their effects. This review highlights several known molecular mechanisms of selected TCM in chemoprevention. Many TCM products or single active components have been reported to inhibit a variety of processes in cancer cell growth, invasion and metastasis by modulating a wide range of molecular targets, including cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), nuclear factor-Kappa B (NF-kappaB) and nuclear factor erythroid 2 -related factor 2 (Nrf2)-mediated antioxidant signaling pathways. The TCM and their active components with potent chemopreventive effects can be considered as promising lead agents for the design of more effective and less toxic agents for cancer chemoprevention.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anticarcinogenic Agents / pharmacology*
  • Chemoprevention / methods*
  • Drug Screening Assays, Antitumor
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal / pharmacology*
  • Humans
  • Medicine, Chinese Traditional / methods*
  • Models, Biological
  • Signal Transduction / drug effects


  • Anticarcinogenic Agents
  • Drugs, Chinese Herbal