Curcumin, a substance found in the spice turmeric, has long been used in Asian medicine to treat a variety of maladies. Now some research suggests that curcumin may help prevent or treat cancer. Curcumin is thought to have antioxidant properties, which means it may decrease swelling and inflammation. It's being explored as a cancer treatment in part because inflammation appears to play a role in cancer.
By Dr. Mercola
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death. What if there was a safe, natural herb that could work for nearly every type of cancer?
According to Dr. William LaValley, who focuses most of his clinical work on the treatment of cancer, curcumin—a derivative of turmeric, and the pigment that gives the curry spice turmeric its yellow-orange color—may fit the bill. It's a natural compound that has been extensively researched, and has been found to have numerous health applications.
Like me, Dr. LaValley was trained in general medicine, but he's devoted a considerable amount of time to understanding the biochemical pathways that can support health nutritionally.
In 1982, he participated in an exchange program to the People's Republic of China, where he got first-hand experience with the ancient practices of traditional Chinese medicine and acupuncture.
“One of the important messages that I learned there was that natural products, natural molecules, from plants and animals that are already available in nature, have been used by the Chinese for at least hundreds, probably thousands of years. That deeply changed my perspective in the world of medicine,” he says.
“I came back to medical school, and thereafter, looked at how I could integrate the perspective of conventional pharmaceutical administration as well as natural extract, natural product administration.”
Curcumin Has Potent Anti-Cancer Activity
In 2005, he took a 75 percent sabbatical from clinical practice to immerse himself in the science of molecular biology, specifically the molecular biology of cancer. He also devoted approximately 9,000-9,500 hours building a relational database from the PubMed literature about the molecular biology of cancer.
One important lesson he learned through that venture is that the understanding of molecular biology can be applied across a range of diseases and symptoms described in the scientific literature. That knowledge can be applied by searching PubMed and other related databases, looking at the relevant molecular pathways involved.
“In learning the molecular biology of cancer pathways, and in learning that what the evidence actually shows for the effect of natural product extracts on various relevant molecular targets in various cancers,
We see that there's actually quite a large amount of evidence that supports using various molecules, natural products, and pharmaceuticals that are already approved and that have been around for a long time to affect anti-cancer activity along that pathway at that target. That's called molecularly targeted anti-cancer treatment, and it's widely practiced in oncology today.
What's not widely practiced is the use of the natural products for the molecularly targeted anti-cancer activity. I provide that for my patients because the evidence base suggests and supports the use of these treatment recommendations.”
Curcumin—A ‘Universal' Cancer Treatment?
Interestingly, curcumin appears to be universally useful for just about every type of cancer, which is really odd since cancer consists of a wide variety of different molecular pathologies. You wouldn't necessarily suspect that there would be one herb that would work for most of them. Dr. LaValley explains how he came to this conclusion:
“I went back to the literature and looked at how I can support the decision-making process and the recommendations that I'm making for treatment from the scientific literature, including literature that goes from the treatment of humans with oral products like pharmaceuticals or natural products.
This is where I learned about this molecule called curcumin, all the way down to its use in animals and then its use in test tubes or petri dish… One of the amazing things about curcumin is that this molecule has some profound anti-inflammatory activity and has activity in many molecular targets.
There are molecules that are in the cells, and those molecules interact with each other along certain pathways or tracks. The traffic of that interaction, the signals that are transferred in that trafficking of information in the molecules, presents many different targets or molecular-specific complexes.”
As explained by Dr. LaValley, whether the curcumin molecule causes an increase in traffic or activity of a particular molecular target, or a decrease/inhibition of activity, studies repeatedly show that the end result is a potent anti-cancer activity.
Furthermore, curcumin does not adversely affect healthy cells, suggesting it selectively targets cancer cells. Research has also shown that it works synergistically with certain chemotherapy drugs, enhancing the elimination of cancer cells.
Curcumin Destroys Cancer in Multiple Ways
Curcumin has the most evidence-based literature supporting its use against cancer of any nutrient, including vitamin D, which also has a robust base. Interestingly, this also includes the metabolite of curcumin and its derivatives, which are also anti-cancerous.
Curcumin has the ability to modulate genetic activity and expression—both by destroying cancer cells and by promoting healthy cell function. It also promotes anti-angiogenesis, meaning it helps prevent the development of additional blood supply necessary for cancer cell growth. As for its effect on molecular pathways, curcumin can affect more than 100 of them, once it gets into the cell. More specifically, curcumin has been found to:
Inhibit the proliferation of tumor cells Decrease inflammation Inhibit the transformation of cells from normal to tumor Inhibit the synthesis of a protein thought to be instrumental in tumor formation Help your body destroy mutated cancer cells so they cannot spread throughout your body Help prevent the development of additional blood supply necessary for cancer cell growth (angiogenesis)
It is important to remember that turmeric used in cooking is very safe. But we don't know how safe curcumin is when used for medical reasons. So far, research studies seem to show that it causes few or no side effects. But we don't know much about the side effects of taking it in large amounts to treat or prevent cancer. There have been some reports of stomach pain if too much is swallowed and skin problems if it is taken for a long time. For these reasons we recommend that if you use curcumin for reasons other than in cooking, you should talk to your doctor first.