About researching complementary and alternative therapies
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
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.
There is more below about the challenges of researching complementary and alternative therapies.
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.
These links take you to different pages about
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.
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
- A general increase in the use of CAM to almost 6 million people in the UK each year
- Researchers estimate the number of people with cancer using CAMs at 30 to 40%
- Reports showing that some therapies do improve quality of life for people with cancer
- The Government’s acceptance of the House of Lords’ Science and Technology Committee’s report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine in 2000
- The NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) Service Guidance for Improving Supportive and Palliative Care for Adults with Cancer published in March 2004 has a chapter about the use of complementary therapies
- In 2004 the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) set up a Complementary Therapies Clinical Studies Development Group to develop high quality research into complementary therapies in hospitals and cancer centres in the UK – in 2011 it merged with the NCRI Palliative and Supportive Care Clinical Studies Group
- The 2009 King’s Fund Advisory Group report Assessing complementary practice: building consensus on appropriate research methods advised researchers, funders and practitioners to collaborate and contribute to our understanding of complementary practice
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.
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.
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.
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
- The Government – for example through the National Institute for Health Research or the Medical Research Council (MRC)
- Charities, including Cancer Research UK (CRUK)
- Universities and academic departments in hospitals
The next page in this section gives information about recent and current research into complementary therapies in cancer care. For more information about complementary and alternative therapy research look at our complementary therapy reading list.
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 more information about how to find results of trials in the question and answer section.
Sometimes trial results can be obscure or conflicting. The NHS Evidence complementary and alternative medicine website can help you 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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