TMC had been experimenting with traditional practices like yoga to build immunity and speed up post-operative recovery for some time, but the idea of growing medicinal plants and putting them through rigorous clinical and human trials germinated in Feb 2018, following Dr Vikram Gota’s experiments with ashwagandha.
Dr Gota, who is professor and head of clinical pharmacology at TMC’s Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research & Education in Cancer (ACTREC) in Navi Mumbai, was testing the efficacy and safety of withaferin-A, an active compound derived from ashwagandha. His research revealed potential reduction of mortality among bone marrow transplant patients by 50%. That’s how TMC decided to evaluate hundreds of other medicinal plants for cancer treatment, leading to the establishment of the Rs 300-crore Integrative Center for Treatment, Research, and Education in Cancer (ICTREC) in Khopoli.
Dr Gota and his team have made significant progress since, presenting multiple scientific papers that show turmeric and ashwagandha could be potent anti-cancer agents. While turmeric’s anti-inflammatory properties have been known in India for ages, new research shows it also possesses anti-proliferative (tending to inhibit cell growth) and immunomodulatory (helping modify the response of the immune system) qualities.
20 acres, 500 species
While Department of Atomic Energy, TMC’s governing authority, has provided funds to set up ICTREC, Maharashtra government has given the 20-acre land in Khopoli. With ICTREC, TMC will become the first cancer hospital in India to offer cultivation and conservation of medicinal plants with potential benefits in cancer care. The facility, expected to be operational by 2026, will also offer standard cancer treatments such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy.
ICTREC will cultivate over 500 plants, some of which require climate control. It will collaborate with Central Ayurvedic Clinical Research Institute for Cancer (CARIC), Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in Jammu, Agharkar Research Institute in Pune, Podar Ayurvedic Hospital in Mumbai, IIT Bombay, Banaras Hindu University and many other institutes already researching Ayurveda and cancer treatment.
Temper hopes, say sceptics
Ancient Indian medicine systems are criticised for not being evidence-based. An Indian FMCG firm’s herbal “cure” for Covid-19 in the middle of the pandemic only buttressed this view. But ICTREC will put traditional medicinal knowledge through rigorous testing and trials.
Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, head and neck cancer surgeon and deputy director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology at TMC, is leading the project. He said ICTREC aims to develop therapeutically effective drugs derived from medicinal plants after subjecting them to rigorous trials.
However, Dr Cyric Abby Philips, senior consultant, clinical and translational hepatology, and famous for busting traditional medicine myths on his X (Twitter) account, has his reservations.
“There are numerous low-quality, basic, preclinical studies in cells, tissues and small animals showing various potential activities of withaferin-A, but none conclusively shows any benefits in GvHD (graft versus host disease) or other complications associated with cancer therapy,” he said.
“They’re utilising traditional medicinal plants to address post-cancer treatment complications, and to strengthen patients’ immunity affected by treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. This isn’t justified with the level of evidence available in published medical literature,” he added.
‘Considerable global interest’
But Dr Meghal Sanghavi, senior surgical oncologist at Wockhardt Hospital in Mumbai, said, “I appreciate that TMC is not advocating Ayurveda without substantiation; instead, it is initiating trials first… I am confident that thorough research will precede implementation.”
After five years of experiments and trials with ashwagandha, Dr Gota is not done yet. While he has some evidence to suggest ashwagandha could reduce mortality by half in bone marrow transplant cases, he is gearing up for the second phase of trials aimed at validating these findings.
Dr Shripad Banavali, director, academics, at TMC, also said they are not rushing to prove anyone wrong or right. “A single randomised trial can take up to 10-15 years. We have just begun. We will only assert the anti-cancer potential of medicinal plants if a trial indicates so.”
He said there is considerable international interest in ICTREC’s work: “There will be multi-centre trials. Multiple global cancer treatment centres have expressed interest in long-term research on medicinal plants… we aspire to collaborate with such centres worldwide.”