The Augusta Chronicle, 06-29-05
To the touted anti-cancer benefits of drinking green tea, Stephen Hsu wants to add another: It might keep your body from turning against itself. And that could become more important as some medications are pulled off the market or required to carry warnings about heart disease.
Dr. Hsu, a researcher at Medical College of Georgia and former green tea farmer in his native China, is looking at a new area where the brew might be beneficial.
In a very preliminary study presented earlier this month at the Arthritis Foundation's Arthritis Research Conference, Dr. Hsu found that a green tea extract called EGCG helped suppress proteins that can trigger an autoimmune response, in which the immune system attacks other cells in the body.
The study was prompted by an observation that chronic dry mouth is common in older people in the United States but rare in green- tea-drinking China; one of the causes is an autoimmune disease called Sjgren's syndrome, in which the immune system destroys cells in the salivary and lacrimal glands. Many autoimmune diseases, including Sjgren's, are caused by proteins that normally work elsewhere in the cell but suddenly appear on the cell wall, drawing the attention of immune cells, Dr. Hsu said.
"They see those structures as foreign, invaders," he said. The green tea extract appeared to keep those proteins or antigens from being overproduced, which might explain why it would help the salivary glands later, he said.
"They are exposed every day to green tea, for the green tea drinkers," Dr. Hsu said. "And then their salivary functions are better when they become older."
Some previous work in green tea extract found it had an anti- inflammatory effect, which could also be beneficial in some autoimmune diseases.
Also as important, green tea is natural (it comes from a member of the Camellia family) and is apparently not harmful, he said.
"The green tea polyphenols have been in nature for millions and millions of years, and we have been drinking green tea and using it for thousands of years without any toxicity," Dr. Hsu said.
That issue became more important earlier this month, when the Food and Drug Administration announced it was requiring over-the- counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to carry a warning about increased risk of heart disease. It had earlier pulled a popular arthritis drug, Bextra, for the same reason, much to the dismay of the Arthritis Foundation. That could leave people with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, looking for alternatives, foundation CEO John H. Klippel said.
"We do think that (people with arthritis) need to begin to think about the role of alternative medicines and complementary medicines, and that would include things like acupuncture, and dietary supplements like glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate," Dr. Klippel said.
What Dr. Hsu is doing could play a role in that in the future, he said.
"We actually applaud the fact that a basic scientist is actually trying to explore at a scientific level where alternative approaches to treatment, including something like green tea, might fit in," Dr. Klippel said. "I think his work is potentially very important."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.