New research shows that curcumin, which is a natural extract from turmeric (shown here), could have unique benefits as an adjunct to chemotherapy in treating pancreatic cancer.
Curcumin is the active compound found in plants such as turmeric, and more and more studies have been pointing to the therapeutic potential of the compound for various conditions, ranging from cancer to diabetes.
Preclinical studies have suggested that the compound has various antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, and anticarcinogenic properties.
However, the compound is very quickly metabolized and eliminated from the human body when taken orally. For this reason, more clinical studies and trials are needed to test the therapeutic benefits it may have - either on its own, or in combination with other types of conventional treatment.
Specifically, the new study investigates the potential of curcumin to overcome chemoresistance, which is a common challenge in the treatment of pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC).
The study was carried out by researchers led by Ajay Goel, Ph.D., director of gastrointestinal research and translational genomics and oncology at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute in Dallas, TX.
The findings were published in the journal Carginogenesis.
Inhibiting drug resistance pathways
Cancer stem cells are believed to be the main culprit in the development of chemotherapy resistance in the treatment of PDAC; studies have suggested that they have the ability to escape chemotherapy, and that they may be the main cause of metastasis.
However, as the authors of the new study explain, other research has shown that curcumin may block this acquired chemoresistance, although the precise molecular mechanisms for this potential benefit are unknown.
Recent evidence has pointed to a subunit of a so-called polycomb protein group as a crucial element in maintaining stem cells. Polycomb proteins play a key role in the differentiation of stem cells, and a subunit of the polycomb repressive complex 2 has been shown to regulate drug resistance.
When Dr. Goel and colleagues treated pancreatic cells with curcumin, it inhibited the EZH2 pathway, which made the cells more receptive to chemotherapy.
Moreover, the researchers found that curcumin blocks the formation of spheroids in cell cultures, which suggests that it would also inhibit the growth and recurrence of tumors.
"By treating certain cells with small doses of curcumin, we were able to reverse the pathways that lead to chemoresistance," says Dr. Goel.
"This is an important breakthrough that could lead to better prognosis and longer lives for patients with chemoresistant pancreatic cancer."
Ajay Goel, Ph.D.
Previous studies have shown that curcumin has preventative benefits, but to the authors' knowledge, this is the first study that shows the beneficial effect of the plant extract in combination with chemotherapy and its advantages in overcoming drug resistance.
Dr. Goel and his team are hopeful that this natural compound has unique healing potential. "Food-based botanicals have the potential to restore a healthier gene expression in patients but without the toxicity of certain drugs," he concludes.