Curcumin, which is the main component in turmeric, a spice used in curry, can set off cancer-killing mechanisms in human saliva in people with head and neck cancer. According to a new study to be published on Thursday in Clinical Cancer Research, the curcumin suppresses a cell signaling pathway that promotes the growth of head and neck cancer by actually changing the molecular behavior of human saliva.
The study was conducted by researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and is not the first that has been conducted about the anti-cancer properties of curcumin. A 2005 study by the senior author Dr. Marilene Wang, a professor of head and neck surgery, found that curcumin suppressed the growth of head and neck cancer in cells and then in mouse models. (Indeed, I first heard about the spice’s potential as an anti-cancer treatment from an undergraduate who was researching the topic some years ago.)
Science Daily describes the study:
The curcumin binds to and prevents an enzyme known as IKK, an inhibitor of kappa β kinase, from activating a transcription factor called nuclear factor kappa β (NFκβ), which promotes cancer growth.
In this study, 21 patients with head and neck cancers gave samples of their saliva before and after chewing two curcumin tablets totaling 1,000 milligrams. One hour later, another sample of saliva was taken and proteins were extracted and IKKβ kinase activity measured. Thirteen subjects with tooth decay and five healthy subjects were used as controls, Wang said.
Eating the curcumin, Wang said, put it in contact not just with the cancer but also with the saliva, and the study found it reduced the level of cancer enhancing cytokines.
All the patients tolerated the curcumin, with the one side effect noted that their mouths and teeth turned bright yellow. Wang is hopeful that curcumin could be used in combination with other therapies, such as chemotherapy and radiation, to treat head and neck cancer.” She also suggests that it might have preemptive benefits and that curcumin “could perhaps be given to patients at high risk for developing head and neck cancers — smokers, those who chew tobacco and people with the HPV virus — as well as to patients with previous oral cancers to fight recurrence.”
Wang is also investigating whether treating patients for longer periods of time with curcumin might increase its inhibitory effects. Among the advantages of curcumin as a cancer treatment are that it is “not toxic, well tolerated, cheap and easily obtained in any health food store.” Curcumin is, as Science Daily notes, naturally-occurring and used in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking and has “long been known to have medicinal properties, attributed to its anti-inflammatory effects.” Women in India have used the spice for a variety of ailments: as an anti-aging agent for their skin, for treating cramps during menstruation and as a poultice on the skin to heal wounds.
While patients need to ingest more curcumin (in the form of supplements) than one would in food for its anti-cancer effects, knowing that the spice has such properties is (if you ask me) not a bad excuse to make (or take out) an order of curry.
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Photo turmeric stupas taken in Yangon, Myanmar, by Zero-X