Breast Cancer Expert Collaborates with Dalai Lama's Doctor

October 07, 1999
News Office: Abby Sinnott (415) 885-7277

Faced with advanced breast cancer, hundreds of women worldwide have sought treatment from Yeshi Dhonden, one of the foremost living authorities on Tibetan medicine who was the Dalai Lama's personal physician for two decades. Now, in an unprecedented clinical trial, Dhonden and breast cancer experts at UCSF are putting traditional Tibetan medicine to the test as the sole therapy for advanced breast cancer.

"This will be a preliminary study that will look for changes in the size of women's tumors," said Dr. Debu Tripathy, director of clinical research at the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center at UCSF Medical Center. "The investigational therapy will be individualized to a certain extent, with Dr. Dhonden choosing one of seven formula for each woman based on his diagnosis and assessment."

UCSF currently is recruiting women for the Tibetan medicine trial, which is approved by the UCSF institutional review board and Food and Drug Administration. The state of California's Breast Cancer Research Program issued Tripathy a $50,000 grant to develop the study. To date, no trials have been conducted on a sufficient scale and with the use of rigorous scientific methodologies to fully assess Tibetan medicine and diagnosis. Although Dhonden has treated an estimated 3,000 women with breast cancer during the past 20 years, the responses and clinical benefits are unknown because formal record keeping is not standard in Tibetan medicine.

Dhonden, who is based in Dharamsala, India, visits San Francisco once every four to six months to chart the progress of the women in the one-year trial. Study participants are prohibited from receiving any other treatments while enrolled in the trial, including both conventional and unconventional therapies. All patients will be regularly monitored with standard Western techniques including physical examinations, tomography scans and blood and liver function tests.

Women in the study are first examined by Dhonden who gives them a diagnosis and then prescribes an herbal therapy that is taken two to six times daily for one year. Diagnosis Tibetan style is based on methods such as pulse readings, examination of a woman's tongue and of the color, odor and appearance of her urine. These finely tuned techniques may detect subtle underlying differences between two breast cancer patients that conventional Western diagnosis often overlooks, Tripathy said. Further, he believes that Tibetan treatment, which provides individual therapies for each woman, may have a greater insight into treating cancer than the standard "one size fits all" Western approach.

Tibetan Buddhist medicine is based on a tradition that understands the body in terms of three "humors:" wind, bile and phlegm -- the imbalances that fundamentally derive from the three mental afflictions of attachment, hatred and delusion. In the Tibetan medical model of treatment for breast cancer, the prescribed therapy consists of herbal compounds designed to treat a woman's individual "humors" that are out of balance. Tibetan phytotherapy (herbal therapy) works by means of a synergistic action of the combination of individual herbs and other natural substances in a formula.

Patients who are eligible to participate in the trial must have a confirmed diagnosis of stage IV advanced breast cancer; have minimal tissue and organ damage; be relatively healthy with no major symptoms; and have not used any experimental agents, herbal medication or anti-tumor therapies for at least three weeks prior to enrollment. For more information on the study, please call the Complementary and Alternative Medicine program at (415) 353-7682.