Chinese herbal medicine can protect the immune systems of breast cancer patients and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy,  a group of Cochrane Collaboration scientists said yesterday.

Scientists analysed data from seven studies involving 542 women with breast cancer.

They concluded that Chinese medicines may safely reduce the immuno-suppressive side effects of powerful anti-cancer drugs.

A number of Chinese medicinal herbal mixtures and compounds are prescribed to counteract the unwanted effects of chemotherapy.

Three of the studies showed improvements to white blood cells, key elements of the immune system. Two appeared to have had a general positive effect on quality of life.

In their paper published by the Cochrane Library, the researchers said: “The results suggest that using Chinese herbs in conjunction with chemotherapy or CHM alone may be beneficial in terms of improvements in bone marrow suppression and immune system, and may improve overall state of quality of life.”

The researchers also said further trials were needed before the effects of traditional Chinese medicines on women with breast cancer could be evaluated with any confidence.

In a separate study, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that an extract of triphala, the dried and powdered fruits of three plants, caused pancreatic tumours to die in mice.