Scientists based at the Cork Cancer Research Centre treated oesophageal cancer cells with curcumin – a chemical found in the curry spice tumeric.
They found that curcumin started to kill cancer cells within 24 hours. The cells also began to digest themselves.
The results additionally showed that curcumin kills cells by triggering lethal cell death signals.
Dr Sharon McKenna, lead study author, based at the Cork Cancer Research Centre, University College Cork, said:
“These exciting results suggest scientists could develop curcumin as a potential anti-cancer drug to treat oesophageal cancer.
“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 Geraldine O’Sullivan-Coyne, a medical researcher in our lab had been looking for new ways of killing resistant oesophageal cancer cells. She tested curcumin on resistant cells and found that they started to die using an unexpected system of cell messages.”
Normally, faulty cells die by committing programmed suicide – or apoptosis – which occurs when proteins called caspases are ‘switched on’ in cells. But these cells showed no evidence of suicide and the addition of a molecule that inhibits caspases and stops this ‘switch being flicked’, made no difference to the number of cells which died. This suggested that curcumin attacked the cancer cells using an alternative cell signalling system.
Each year around 7,800 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancer in the UK – around 160 of these are in Northern Ireland. Less than 20 per cent of people survive oesophageal cancer beyond five years. It is the sixth most common cause of cancer death and accounts for around five per cent of all UK cancer deaths.
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 tumeric 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.”
For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.
O’Sullivan-Coyne, G., O’Sullivan, G., O’Donovan, T., Piwocka, K., & McKenna, S. (2009). Curcumin induces apoptosis-independent death in oesophageal cancer cells British Journal of Cancer, 101 (9), 1585-1595 DOI: 10.1038/sj.bjc.6605308