LONDON: An extract found in the bright yellow curry spice turmeric can kill off cancer cells, scientists have shown.
The chemical – curcumin – has long been thought to have healing powers and is already being tested as a treatment for arthritis and even dementia.
Now tests by a team at the Cork Cancer Research Centre show it can destroy gullet cancer cells in the lab.
Cancer experts said the findings in the British Journal of Cancer could help doctors find new treatments.
Dr Sharon McKenna and her team found that curcumin started to kill cancer cells within 24 hours.
The cells also began to digest themselves, after the curcumin triggered lethal cell death signals.
Dr McKenna said: “Scientists have known for a long time that natural compounds have the potential to treat faulty cells that have become cancerous and we suspected that curcumin might have therapeutic value.”
Dr Lesley Walker, director of cancer information at Cancer Research UK, said: “This is interesting research which opens up the possibility that natural chemicals found in turmeric could be developed into new treatments for oesophageal cancer.
“Rates of oesophageal cancer rates have gone up by more than a half since the 70s and this is thought to be linked to rising rates of obesity, alcohol intake and reflux disease so finding ways to prevent this disease is important too.”
Each year around 7,800 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the UK. It is the sixth most common cause of cancer death and accounts for around five per cent of all UK cancer deaths.
Meanwhile, a US researcher suggests eating a curry once or twice a week could help prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
The key ingredient again is curcumin, a component of the spice turmeric.
Curcumin appears to prevent the spread of amyloid protein plaques – thought to cause dementia – in the brain.
Amyloid plaques, along with tangles of nerve fibres, are thought to contribute to the degradation of the wiring in brain cells, eventually leading to symptoms of dementia.
Professor Murali Doraiswamy, of Duke University in North Carolina, said there was evidence that people who eat a curry meal two or three times a week have a lower risk of dementia.
He said researchers were testing the impact of higher doses – the equivalent of going on a curry spree for a week – to see if they could maximise the effect.
“There is very solid evidence that curcumin binds to plaques, and basic research on animals engineered to produce human amyloid plaques has shown benefits,” said Prof Doraiswamy.
“You can modify a mouse so that at about 12 months its brain is riddled with plaques.
“If you feed this rat a curcumin-rich diet it dissolves these plaques. The same diet prevented younger mice from forming new plaques.
“The next step is to test curcumin on human amyloid plaque formation using newer brain scans and there are plans for that.”
Prof Doraiswamy said a clinical trial was now underway at the University of California, Los Angeles, to test curcumin’s effects in Alzheimer’s patients.
He said research had also examined turmeric’s therapeutic potential for treating conditions such as cancer and arthritis.
He stressed that eating a curry could not counter-balance the increased risk of dementia associated with a poor diet.
However, he said: “If you have a good diet and take plenty of exercise, eating curry regularly could help prevent dementia.”
Prof Doraiswamy predicted it might be possible to develop a curry pill which had the same therapeutic effect.
However, Rebecca Wood, of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, stressed that people would need to eat a lot of curry – over 100g of turmeric curry powder – to get a clinical dose of curcumin.
She said: “Professor Doraiswamy’s unpublished research applies only to animal models; his hypothesis has not been confirmed in human clinical trials.
“We look forward to the results of the human curcumin trial at UCLA.”
Dr Susanne Sorensen, of the Alzheimer’s Society, said: “Indian communities that regularly eat curcumin have a surprisingly low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease but we don’t yet know why.
“Alzheimer’s Society is keen to explore the potential benefits of curcumin in protecting the brain and we are conducting our own research into this area.
“A cheap, accessible and safe treatment could transform the quality of life of thousands of people with the condition.” – BBC