Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras have shown that the active compound from the common household spice turmeric — curcumin — can enhance cancer cell death.

Researchers from the Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta School of Biosciences, Department of Biotechnology, have found that treating leukaemia cells that cause cancer of the blood and bone marrow with curcumin, enhances cell death.

The research team led by Rama Shanker Verma has published its work in Pharmacological Reports, a peer-reviewed journal. The paper was co-authored by Sridevi Surapally and Madhumathi Jayaprakasam.

TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) is an agent with the ability to programme cell death (apoptosis) and has triggered many preclinical studies the world over. While the anti-tumour activity of TRAIL in preclinical studies had been strong, in clinical trials, the results were so far unsatisfactory as cancer cells, when exposed long-term, seem to acquire resistance against TRAIL. The next round of research has been to find chemicals that can reverse resistance and increase sensitivity of cancer cells to TRAIL.

The IIT-M research team chose curcumin as it is known to inhibit carcinogenesis and induce apoptosis in various cancer cells.

The researchers isolated leukaemia cells from cancer patients and found that non-toxic concentrations of curcumin can significantly increase the efficiency of TRAIL-induced cell death.

The findings showed clearly that even small concentration of curcumin could potentially enhance the sensitiveness of leukaemic cells to TRAIL, the researchers said.

However, they added that the reactions were carried out with isolated cells outside the human body in a test tube. It is yet unclear if the same results can be obtained in vivo, that is inside the body.

Their caution stems from the fact that absorption of curcumin in the blood from the gut and its bio-availability for therapeutic purpose is generally poor.

“A few researchers have shown that compounds such as quercetin found in onions and green tea and piperazine, found in black and green pepper, enhance absorption of curcumin by the body,” added Mr. Verma.

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