A Dash of Turmeric: The Secret Ingredient for Cancer Treatment?

Reading time: 4 minutes

Melanie Padalino

“Do you have any spices?” my friend Elizabeth asked while cooking an omelet in my kitchen. “Yep, there should be a whole bunch in the cabinet” I replied. Without hesitation, she went straight for the little glass jar of ground turmeric, an ancient spice known for its bright orange color and bitter taste.

At one point or another, you’ve probably heard of turmeric. Not only is it available as a spice for cooking, but you can also purchase turmeric supplements in a typical grocery or drug store. Furthermore, it is used in cosmetics and as a coloring agent. The list seems to go on and on.

But can it serve as a treatment for cancer patients? The short answer is… maybe. Let’s go back to the basics. 

Rhizomes are stems that grow horizontally underground that provide plants with energy. Common garden plants that contain rhizomes include turmeric, ginger, iris, and hops. Turmeric is perhaps the most intriguing of all these, and is a rhizomatous herbaceous perennial plant (Curcuma longa) of the ginger family native to South Asia. It contains a plethora of bioactive compounds known as curcuminoids. The major curcuminoid in turmeric is ​​curcumin, a chemical compound as shown below.

Figure 1: Chemical structure of curcumin

Curcumin has been extensively studied for its medicinal potential and bioactivity. It can provide a myriad of health benefits, primarily due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (1) (2). In recent years, there has been much focus on curcumin’s potential impact on cancer due to its innate ability to interact with key biological targets, many of which are modulated by current cancer therapy drugs. By doing so, curcumin can interfere with multiple cell signaling pathways and, thus, impact tumor cell growth and metastasis.   

Curcumin has many biological targets, including transcription factors, inflammatory cytokines, enzymes, kinases, growth factors, receptors, and various other proteins. Shown below are examples.

Figure 2: Biological targets of curcumin from reference 5.

The compound’s mechanism of action is far too complex and multifaceted to recapitulate here. But we’ll explore a few ways in which it interferes with cancer. First, it upregulates or amplifies p53, a tumor suppressor gene that works to prompt cellular apoptosis (cell death) and repair damaged DNA. Many types of cancers stem from mutated or nonfunctional p53. However, upon restoration of p53 expression, it has been found that tumor regression, apoptosis, and the suppression of cell growth can occur. By activating p53, curcumin exhibits antiproliferative activity in cancer cell lines, such as those associated with breast cancer (4).

While curcumin upregulates some processes, such as those associated with p53, it can also downregulate others. One such example involves the pathways associated with the proinflammatory transcription factor NF-κB, a protein complex that regulates various genes and protein expression. The activation of NF-κB can actually protect cancer cells from apoptosis by antagonizing the p53 we talked about earlier! Thus, the downregulation of NF-κB can lead to tumor regression, and studies suggest that curcumin can do just this (3) (5). 

Taken together, there is scientific evidence that suggests turmeric can serve as a treatment for cancer patients. Moreover, many clinical studies found that it’s generally safe and well-tolerated. Another advantage of the natural product is its relatively low cost. 

Despite all this, much of the current evidence has been generated from early-phase trials, and more clinical data is warranted before curcumin becomes a mainstay in cancer treatment options. In addition, the administration of curcumin in its natural state is also problematic due to the compound’s poor bioavailability and rapid metabolism. Current research is being done to optimize this. So, while curcumin may not be magic pixie dust that will instantly cure cancer, scientists are eager to dive in and learn more.

Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for medical advice.

Edited by Vicky Tan

References

  1. Hewlings, S.; Kalman, D. Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health. Foods 2017, 6 (10), 92. 
  2. Curcumin (Curcuma, turmeric) and cancer (PDQ®)–health professional version.https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/curcumin-pdq (accessed Jul 20, 2022). 
  3. Kunnumakkara, A. B.; Bordoloi, D.; Harsha, C.; Banik, K.; Gupta, S. C.; Aggarwal, B. B. Curcumin Mediates Anticancer Effects by Modulating Multiple Cell Signaling Pathways. Clinical Science 2017, 131 (15), 1781–1799. 
  4. Talib, W. H.; Al-hadid, S. A.; Wild Ali, M. B.; AL-Yasari, I. H.; Abd Ali, M. R. Role of Curcumin in Regulating p53 in Breast Cancer: An Overview of the Mechanism of Action. Breast Cancer: Targets and Therapy 2018, Volume 10, 207–217. 
  5. Anand, P.; Sundaram, C.; Jhurani, S.; Kunnumakkara, A. B.; Aggarwal, B. B. Curcumin and Cancer: An “Old-Age” Disease with an “Age-Old” Solution. Cancer Letters 2008, 267 (1), 133–164. 

Header image from unsplash.com

Figure 1 created in ChemDraw.

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