About complementary and alternative therapy research

Researching complementary and alternative therapies can be a challenge. But some high quality research is looking into complementary therapies to help people with cancer.

Why we need research into complementary and alternative therapy

Research into complementary and alternative therapies is important to:

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

Doing research is important because we cannot be sure that something works or is safe to use without scientific evidence. One person, or even a dozen people, saying a particular herb or diet helped them isn’t 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 before they can be tried on people. This applies to therapies that use herbs, vitamins, minerals, and any other substances.

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

Clinical trials

Tests that involve people with cancer are called clinical trials. Clinical trials are divided into 4 stages (phase 1 to 4).

The earliest phase trials may look at whether a drug is safe or the side effects it causes. A later phase trial aims to test whether a new treatment is better than existing treatments.

There are also different types of trials. These are chosen to fit the type of therapy being tested and include:

  • randomised controlled trials
  • observational studies
  • quality of life studies

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

Increasing research into complementary and alternative therapy

Researchers estimate that 30 to 40 out of every 100 people (30-40%) with cancer use complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

There has been more research into CAM over recent years. This is due to a significant change in how health professionals and people with cancer view complementary therapies. 

International developments in CAM research

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) established the OCCAM in October 1998. OCCAM funds research and provides evidence based information about complementary therapies.

The NCCIH is the USA's leading agency for scientific research into complementary and alternative medicine. The organisation funds research into CAM for many illnesses, including cancer, and provides information. It is part of the National Institute of Health (NIH).

The SIO is a non profit organisation of health professionals that study and research 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 ISCMR is an international, multidisciplinary, non profit scientific organisation. It supports research into complementary and integrative medicine and allows professionals to exchange knowledge and information.

CAMbrella is a European research network for complementary and alternative medicine. There are 16 partner institutions from 12 European countries working together.

The challenges of researching complementary and alternative medicine

Much of the research done so far isn’t strong enough to prove the benefits or possible risks of complementary and alternative therapies.

There are many problems that have held back research, including difficulties with:

  • getting research funding
  • designing appropriate clinical trials for certain therapies
  • getting the most appropriate people to develop research into CAMs
  • time for medical doctors and complementary therapists to work closely together on research
  • a lack of complementary therapists with research experience and knowledge
  • finding a control group to take part in trials

But the situation is improving and organisations are funding more reliable, high quality scientific research.

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

The most common areas of research into complementary therapies for cancer vary between countries.

In the UK, some common areas of research include mind, body and touch therapies such as:

  • acupuncture
  • massage
  • mindfulness based stress reduction

There is relatively little UK research into nutritional and herbal medicine so far. But in the USA, there is more research into herbs, vitamins and dietary supplements compared to mind, body and touch therapies.

Who supports and funds research?

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
  • universities and academic departments in hospitals
  • Improving supportive and palliative care for adults with cancer
    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2004

  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine (3rd edition)
    D Doyle, G Hanks, N Cherny and K Calman
    Oxford University Press, 2005

  • Use of complementary or alternative medicine in a general population in Great Britain. Results from the National Omnibus survey
    K Thomas and P Coleman
    Journal of Public Health, 2004. Volume 26, Issue 2

  • Use of complementary and alternative medicine in patients with cancer: a UK survey
    JA Scott and others
    European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 2005. Volume 9, Issue 2

Last reviewed: 
07 Aug 2019

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