Background: Herbal mixtures are popular alternatives to demonstrated therapies. PC-SPES, a commercially available combination of eight herbs, is used as a nonestrogenic treatment for cancer of the prostate. Since other herbal medicines have estrogenic effects in vitro, we tested the estrogenic activity of PC-SPES in yeast and mice and in men with prostate cancer.
Methods: We measured the estrogenic activity of PC-SPES with transcriptional-activation assays in yeast and a biologic assay in mice. We assessed the clinical activity of PC-SPES in eight patients with hormone-sensitive prostate cancer by measuring serum prostate-specific antigen and testosterone concentrations during and after treatment.
Results: In complementary yeast assays, a 1:200 dilution of an ethanol extract of PC-SPES had estrogenic activity similar to that of 1 nM estradiol, and in ovariectomized CD-1 mice, the herbal mixture increased uterine weights substantially. In six of six men with prostate cancer, PC-SPES decreased serum testosterone concentrations (P<0.05), and in eight of eight patients it decreased serum concentrations of prostate-specific antigen. All eight patients had breast tenderness and loss of libido, and one had venous thrombosis. High-performance liquid chromatography, gas chromatography, and mass spectrometry showed that PC-SPES contains estrogenic organic compounds that are distinct from diethylstilbestrol, estrone, and estradiol.
Conclusions: PC-SPES has potent estrogenic activity. The use of this unregulated mixture of herbs may confound the results of standard or experimental therapies and may produce clinically significant adverse effects.