Curcumin has many serious fans in the fight to beat cancer - UCLA, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Emory School of Medicine and Tufts to name but four important American Cancer Centers. Why? It is a powerful antioxidant that is also anti-viral and anti-bacterial; plus it seems to have great potential to fight cancer, especially colorectal cancer. All people wishing to build an anti-cancer programme should think seriously about including curcumin within it.
The anti-cancer action of curcumin (turmeric):
* Importantly, the spice can stop the action of the enzyme COX-2 known to produce negative, inflammation causing localised enzymes (eicosanoids). Such inflammation is a known precursor to cancer.
* It has also been shown to inhibit vascular epithelial growth factors. Every tumour needs a blood supply - the growth factors build one, but curcumin seems to stop them.
* It has been shown to ´re-awaken´ a key tumour surpressor gene.
* It has been shown to inhibit metastases.
* It has been shown to kill cancer cells (B lymphoma cells).
* It prevents regrowth of cancer stem cells which lie at the heart of many tumours
More research is being reported every month!
For example, in the journal ´Genes and Nutrition´ (2011, 6(2) 93-108) the whole issue of ´Epigenetics´ was exposed. It used to be thought that your genes controlled all and a problem in a gene meant you were in someway ´doomed´. This theory has been disproven and replaced by one that shows genes are just your blueprint; these blueprints are controlled, activated or surpressed by the localised environment. So hormones can affect their action, as can natural compounds in food. And curcumin seems to affect gene expression significantly. Such ´signalling pathways´ have been shown to be affected by curcumin.
An example of this ´signalling pathway´ modification came in research from theLudwig-Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2012 which showed thatcurcumin can inhibit the formation of metastases in both prostate and breast cancer. Both cancers spread throughout the body through the release of chemical messengers, pro-inflammatory cytokines CXCL1 and CXCL2, but curcumin alters the expression of these two damaging proteins.
Next, Cheryl Myers (head of Scientific Affairs and Education for EuroPharma Inc.) refers to curcumin as ´the anti-cancer herb´ because of its success in stopping cancer formation, replication and spread. Research also shows that curcumin increases the activity of certain anti-cancer drugs whilst protecting healthy cells and organs. It has been proven to reduce systemic inflammation and oxidative stress.
And researchers from the Dept. of Natural Science at Middlesex Universityhave shown that curcumin and chokeberry can work together to induce cancer cell death (apoptosis) and stop the spread of malignant cancer cells. Their report (in Oncology Reports) was for brain tumours.
Dr Young S. Kim leading a team at the National Cancer Institute in America showed that curcumin was one of the natural compounds that could prevent cancer stem cells from re-growing and re-forming the cancer tumour. Her conclusion even suggested patients could supplement!
The biggest fans seem to reside at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas. From Cancer Watch April 2011 comes this note:
Professor Bharat Aggarwal Ph. D. in MD Andersons Department of Therapeutics has conducted a number of studies, for example showing that in pancreatic cancer patients having no chemotherapy, it reduced tumour size. He believes it is effective against many types of cancer because it suppresses angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels essential to a tumour).
Indeed he goes further: "No cancer has been found, to my knowledge, which is not affected by curcumin," Aggarwal says. "The reason curcumin is so effective against cancer is that it hits not just a single target or cell signalling pathway but dozens of targets implicated in cancer."
Taking a Curcumin supplement
Curcumin supplements provide curcumin in good amounts but curcumin is difficult is difficult to absorb. Absorption can be helped by piperine the active ingredient in black pepper. This also seems to enhance some of its actions.
According to the American Cancer Society absorption can be improved by mixing the supplement with a teaspoonful of olive oil and sprinkling the black pepper on it. Don´t spill it on your skin or clothes - it stains.
So is curcumin a cure for cancer? No, of course not. What is exciting the experts in cancer centres in America is that it can play a role against several of the steps in what is a multi-step cancer process. As such it would seem stupid to ignore it as a part of an Integrative or holistic cancer treatment programme.
What are curcumin and turmeric?
Curcumin is the active ingredient of the Indian/Asian curry spice Turmeric. To put this technically, curcumin is the principal curcuminoid in turmeric. Curcuminoids are polyphenols. Turmeric powder is ground from the root of a plant called Curcuma Longa, which is a member of the ginger family and is found throughout Southern Asia, even growing wild in the Himalayas.
This vivid yellow to brown spice was used, like many Asian spices and chillies, to hide the taste of stronger tasting meats and fish even those that might have gone a little off in such hot climates. Like many such spices, it also performed a necessary and functional role it was a cleanser, a bacteria-killer in the stomach, protecting against tainted foods!
The research is coming thick and fast. You will find the latest in Cancer Watch
Curcumin/turmeric has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years as a cleanser of the body. It appears to work at a number of levels:
1. It can inhibit unwanted bacterial action in the stomach and intestine:
For example (i) , University of Chicago researchers have shown it inhibitsHeliobacter pylori, a bacterium known to be responsible for stomach ulcers and some stomach cancers. In Ayurvedic medicine, curcumin was used in poultices for this same reason to kill unwanted bacteria.
2. It is a significant anti-inflammatory:
Arachidonic acid is a precursor/stimulator of the production of bad eicosancids (see our reviews of omega 3 and vitamin D) and thus to inflammation, which is itself a precursor to certain cancers. Curcumin has been found to inhibit several of the pre-inflammatory enzymes (e.g. COX2 and iNOS) in vitro and in vivo with animals. Japanese research suggests it works in much the same way as salicylin. (ii)
3. It boosts crucial cellular glutathione levels:
Glutathione is a crucial intracellular antioxidant, helping the cell maintain its correct oxygen levels and fight off the effects of stress hormones. Research has shown that curcumin can prevent the action of an enzyme that limits glutathione production.
4. It is a powerful antioxidant:
Turmeric extract tested more potent than garlic, omega 3 and cat´s claw (devil´s claw) said German research. (iii)
5. It can help prevent liver damage
2010 research from St Louis has shown that it can turn off a protein called Leptin, which causes liver damage. It has also been shown to be capable of detoxifying the liver. Thus curcumin may be of help in keeping the liver healthy during chemotherapy cancer treatments.(vii)
6. It can prevent and even ´treat´ cancer:
As we have covered above, curcumin can suppress tumour initiation, promotion and metastasis. Extensive research over the last 50 years has indicated it can prevent and treat cancer. The anti-cancer potential stems from its ability to control gene signalling, and affect a wide variety of tumour cells, down-regulate transcription factors, down-regulate enzymes such as COX-2 and other inflammatories, cytokines, chemokines, cell-surface adhesion molecules, down-regulate growth factors, etc., etc. (iv)
But, its not just me that are fans:
Tufts have conducted research with breast cancer patients concluding that curcumin and isoflavanoids seem to inhibit the action of environmental oestrogens. (v)
UCLA have researched its potential with colorectal cancer (San Diego, Chauhen). And there are Clinical Trials underway (according to the Mayo Clinicto investigate curcumin as a way to prevent cancer in people with precancerous conditions, as a cancer treatment, and as a remedy for signs and symptoms caused by cancer treatments.
Kentucky University researchers report on its inhibition of B lymphoma cells. (vi)
Emory School of Medicine showed that it attacked Vascular Endothelial Growth Factors cutting the ability of tumours to generate their essential blood supply lines. Many drugs are being developed specifically to stop VEGF´s, but this common spice already does the job
Memorial Sloan-Kettering (New York) even offered that ´green tea spiced with curcumin was a double anti-cancer beater´!
There are a dozen or more studies where curcumin has caused cell death in cancer cells; and even more where it prevents tumours forming a blood supply.
However as always, some things seem too good to be true; and despite the euphoria of major hospitals in the USA, a few words of realism have to be added.
Firstly, much of the work original used cell cultures. Increasingly studies use a variety of animals, and there have been human trials, even clinical trials, primarily with cervical cancer lesions and with gastrointestinal cancers. So, although the biochemical knowledge is vast, the use of oral curcumin to prevent and treat cancer is still in its infancy.
Next, there is a problem maintaining effectiveness inside the cells; there are several studies that show oral consumption needs to be maintained in order to maintain blood and cellular levels. But it is not as simple as curry every day!(i) Magad et al, Anticancer Res 2002. 22(6C) 4179-81
(ii) Vane: Nobel Prize 1982
(iii) J Pharmacology 2003 55; 981-6
(iv) Aggarwal et al Anticancer Res. 2003. 23; 363-98
(v) Environ Health Perspective 1998; 106. 807-12
(vi) Clin. Immun. 1999. 93; 152-61
(vii) St Louis University 2010