An Indian herbal remedy could one day be used to help fight pancreatic cancer, scientists hope.

A team at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute found extracts of triphala slowed the growth of human pancreatic tumours grafted onto mice.

The findings, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, offer hope that one day a treatment might be developed. Pancreatic cancer is currently very difficult to treat

But experts have warned the research is still at a very early stage.

Triphala is a herbal preparation used in the traditional Indian medicine system Ayurveda.

It contains the dried and powdered fruits of three plants, and it is said to ease intestinal-related disorders, promoting good digestion.

Anti-cancer properties

Previous studies have shown triphala to have an anti-cancer activity in cell cultures, and the new research found this effect also worked in mice fed the herb preparation, without damaging normal pancreatic cells.

The team fed mice grafted with human pancreatic tumours a triphala solution five days per week.

After four weeks they compared the tumour size and proteins contents of the tumours with those of a control group of mice that had not received the triphala.

They found that the tumours in triphala-treated mice were half the size of those in the untreated mice.

The also found the treated mice tumour cells had higher levels of proteins associated with apoptosis - the process by the which the body normally disposes of damaged, old of unneeded cells.

In cancer cells this process is often faulty, allowing the tumours to divide rapidly without any cells dying.

Professor Srivastava said: "Triphala triggered the cancerous cells to die off and significantly reduced the size of the tumours without causing any toxic side effects."

Further testing revealed that triphala had also activated tumour-suppressor genes, but did not negatively affect normal pancreatic cells.

Professor Srivastava said: "Our results demonstrate that triphala has strong anti-cancer properties given its ability to induce apoptosis in pancreatic cancer cells without damaging normal pancreatic cells.

"With follow-up studies, we hope to demonstrate its potential use as a novel agent for the prevention and treatment of pancreatic cancer."

New treatments needed

Pancreatic cancer is the sixth most common cause of cancer death in the UK, causing around 7,000 deaths each year.

It is difficult to treat and survival rates are very low - the latest figures show that the length of time between diagnosis and death is usually less than six months.

Experts said researching new treatments for pancreatic cancer was important, but warned the current research is still at an early stage.

Dr Alison Ross, science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "Pancreatic cancer is difficult to treat so it is important to try and find new ways to tackle it, but these are early experiments so much more work needs to be done to see if triphala will work in humans."

Sue Ballard, founder of charity Pancreatic Cancer UK said: "We welcome any developments in this field as there is a lot more work that needs to be done to find new treatments for pancreatic cancer."