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About researching complementary and alternative therapies

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This page tells you about why we need research into complementary and alternative therapies (CAMs) in cancer care. It also discusses some of the challenges of this type of research. There is information about


Why we need research into CAMs

Research into complementary and alternative cancer therapies is important for several reasons, including

  • To find out if they interact with conventional medicines
  • To assess whether specific therapies work and do what they claim to do
  • To test them against other already accepted treatments to see if they work as well or better
  • To find out if they improve quality of life for people with cancer
  • To understand how they work
  • To check whether they are safe
  • To find out if they are cost effective

Research is important for any medical intervention because from anecdotal evidence alone you can’t be sure that something works or if it is safe. One person, or even a dozen people, believing that a particular diet or herb helped them is not enough. An improvement in their health could be

  • A coincidence
  • Due to another medicine they have taken
  • Due to something else they have done

Medicines used to treat or cure health problems must be developed and tested in laboratories. For ethical and safety reasons, experimental treatments must be tested in the laboratory before they can be tried in people. This applies to therapies that use herbs, vitamins, minerals, and any other substances.

Although other types of complementary therapies such as massage or yoga aren’t tested in the laboratory, they still need to be researched to test their benefits and safety.

There is information on this page about the challenges of researching complementary and alternative therapies.


Clinical trials

Tests involving patients are called clinical trials and there are 4 phases. This is fully explained in the trials and research section

As well as different phases, there are different types of clinical trials. These are chosen to fit the type of therapy being tested and include

  • Randomised controlled trials
  • Observational studies
  • Quality of life studies

You can find out about different types of clinical trials

Researchers can also look at the results of several trials together. This is called a systematic review or meta analysis. In this way, researchers can get a more accurate picture than if they look at just one trial.

If you are interested in taking part in a clinical trial, you can look on our searchable database of clinical trials in the UK. Currently, only a few trials involve complementary therapies but more trials are being planned all the time.

If there is a trial you are interested in, you can print off the information and take it to your own specialist. If the trial is suitable for you, your doctor will need to make the referral to the research team. 

You can also find details of trials on the National Cancer Research Network Clinical Trials Portfolio database. Type the name of the therapy you are interested in into the search box.


Increasing research into CAMs in the UK

Research into complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has increased over the last few years. This is due to a significant change in how health professionals and patients view complementary therapies. There are several reasons for this shift in views, including


International developments in CAM research

The National Cancer Institute's (NCI) Office of Cancer Complementary and Alternative Medicine (OCCAM) was established in October 1998 to coordinate and enhance complementary and alternative medicine activity in cancer care in the USA. OCCAM funds research and provides evidence based information about complementary therapies. 

The National Institute of Health's (NIH) National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is the USA's leading agency for scientific research into complementary and alternative medicine. The organisation funds research into CAMs for many illnesses, including cancer and provides information. 

The Society of Integrative Oncology (SIO) is a non profit organisation of health professionals involved in studying and researching the use of complementary therapies alongside conventional cancer treatments. Its development has encouraged greater awareness of the use of complementary therapies and the need for research. It has highlighted the international research opportunities available.

The International Society for Complementary Medicine Research (ISCMR) is an international professional, multidisciplinary, non profit scientific organisation that fosters Complementary and Integrative Medicine research. It allows professionals to exchange knowledge and information.

CAMbrella is a pan European research network for complementary and alternative medicine. 16 partner institutions from 12 European countries are working together to develop a roadmap for future European research in CAM that is appropriate for the health care needs of European citizens.


The challenges of researching CAMs

Most health professionals agree that we need more research into the role of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) in cancer care. Much of the research done so far isn’t strong enough scientifically or statistically to prove the benefits or possible risks of these therapies. But the situation is improving and organisations are funding more reliable, high quality scientific research. 

Some of the problems that have held back research in this area include

  • Difficulty designing appropriate clinical trials for certain therapies
  • Difficulties in getting funding for the research
  • Limited time for medical doctors and complementary therapists to work closely together on research
  • Problems involved with designing appropriate clinical trials for certain therapies
  • Lack of complementary therapists with research experience and knowledge
  • Challenges in getting the most appropriate people to develop research into CAMs
  • Considering whether the belief that the treatment works (placebo effect) and contact with the complementary health practitioner affect how well the therapy works
  • Difficulties with finding a control group

The National Cancer Research Institute's Complementary Therapies Clinical Studies Group is a group of experts working together to overcome these challenges. It has now merged with the NCRI Palliative and Supportive Care Clinical Studies Group. 

Research in this area is developing as doctors, researchers and complementary therapists continue working together to design clinical trials to give reliable results and reflect the way that the therapies are used in cancer care. We need results from well designed trials to give reliable evidence on which doctors, therapists and patients can make informed decisions about using complementary therapies.


Main areas of research into CAMs and cancer

The most common areas of research into complementary therapies for cancer vary between countries. Some common areas of research interest in cancer care in the UK have included mind, body and touch therapies such as

Relatively little UK research has been carried out into nutritional and herbal medicine so far. But there is a lot more research in the USA into herbs, vitamins and dietary supplements than into mind, body and touch therapies.


Who supports and funds research?

In the past, very little money has been available specifically for research into complementary therapies in cancer care in the UK. But as the challenges with this type of research are being addressed more opportunities for research funding are arising. UK research is sometimes funded by


Finding out about CAM research

The next page in this section gives information about recent and current research into complementary therapies in cancer care

If you’ve taken part in a clinical trial and want to know the results we may have them on our clinical trials database. You can also ask your doctor or therapist. If the results are available, they should be able to find them for you. 

If you want to find out about other trial results there is information about how to find results of trials.

Sometimes trial results can be obscure or conflicting. The NHS Evidence complementary and alternative medicine website can help you to understand the results of clinical trials. It reviews the research evidence into the effectiveness of specific complementary therapies used within NHS priority areas, including cancer care. There are reviews on the use in cancer care of various therapies.

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Updated: 24 October 2014