(NaturalNews) Seasoning food with turmeric and black pepper can do more than just spice up a meal. Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) Comprehensive Cancer Center have found that the compounds curcumin, which is derived from turmeric, and piperine, derived from black pepper, could play an important role in preventing and even treating breast cancer.
Previous research has already provided evidence that curcumin and piperine may be potential cancer treatments. However, the new U-M study, just published online in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, is the first to suggest exactly how these natural spice compounds could prevent cancer. The research shows curcumin and piperine target stem cells (unspecialized cells that can give rise to any type of cell in an organ). This is of major significance because cancer stem cells comprise the small number of cells inside a tumor that fuel the growth of malignancies.
Current chemotherapy agents are useless against these cells -- that's why cancer can recur and spread despite rounds of heavy duty, toxic chemo. But if cancer stem cells could be eliminated and/or their growth shut down, cancer should be controlled.
"If we can limit the number of stem cells, we can limit the number of cells with potential to form tumors," lead author Madhuri Kakarala, M.D., Ph.D., a clinical lecturer in internal medicine at the U-M Medical School and a research investigator at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System, said in a statement to the media. And the new study shows curcumin and piperine work along these lines. The spice derivatives are able to do what chemo can't -- they limit the self-renewal of stem cells.
Killing cancer cells with zero toxicity to healthy cells
For the U-M study, the research team applied a solution of curcumin and piperine to cell cultures at the equivalent of about 20 times the potency of what a person would take in through diet. Then a series of tests were performed on the cells to look at markers for breast stem cells and the effect curcumin and piperine had on the levels of stem cells.
The result? Piperine enhanced the effects of curcumin and the compounds interrupted the self-renewal process that is the hallmark of stem cells which initiate cancer. More good news: the compounds had no effect on the normal process of cell development known as cell differentiation. That means the spice compounds are not toxic to normal breast tissue.
"Women at high risk of breast cancer right now can choose to take the drugs tamoxifen or raloxifene for prevention, but most women won't take these drugs because there is too much toxicity. The concept that dietary compounds can help is attractive, and curcumin and piperine appear to have very low toxicity," Dr. Kakarala stated.
In addition, tamoxifen and raloxifene are designed to target estrogen. But not all breast cancers are estrogen driven. In fact, the most aggressive and deadly forms of breast cancer that are more likely to occur in women with strong family histories of the disease or with a specific genetic susceptibility to breast cancer are typically not affected by estrogen and tend to be difficult to treat. But due to the fact curcumin and piperine limit the self-renewal of stem cells, the spice compounds could impact malignancies whether they are estrogen sensitive or not.
Dr. Kakarala and colleagues are moving forward on an initial Phase 1 clinical trial in people to determine the best tolerated dose of curcumin and piperine. The study is expected to start signing on volunteer research subjects in spring of 2010.