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Japanese research hints at kitchen spice’s effects on mesothelioma

New research suggests a common spice used in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking can reduce the viability of pleural mesothelioma cells.


A Japanese team at Keio University in Yokohama exposed a human mesothelioma cell line, ACC-MESO-1, to curcumin, a derivative of the Indian spice turmeric. The researchers report that curcumin increased the expression of certain proteins in the cancer cells, trigging an increase in autophagy, a process that rids cells of harmful debris and is crucial to the survival of healthy cells.


The lead researcher, Takahira Yamaguchi, said the findings suggest “induction of autophagy was at least in part involved in the reduction of cell viability by curcumin.”


Curcumin is the biologically active component of turmeric, a member of the ginger family. Hundreds of studies have investigated its potential to fight and treat diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes and cancer, and research has intensified in recent years as evidence of curcumin’s low toxicity and health effects accumulates.


In 2005, the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center reported that curcumin inhibits metastasis to the lungs of mice with breast cancer. The researchers said the spice “appears to shut down” a protein active in the spread of the cancer.


That same year, researchers at UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center showed that, after applying the spice directly to tumors, curcumin suppressed the growth of head and neck cancer. In 2010, the Jonsson researchers, Marilene Wang and Eri Srivatsan, discovered that curcumin combined with the chemotherapy drug cisplatin suppresses the growth of cancer cells in the head and neck.


More recently, Wang and Srivatsan gave 21 patients with neck and head cancers 1,000 milligrams of curcumin in chewable tablets. An hour later, they extracted proteins from saliva samples, and measurements found that curcumin binds to and prevents an enzyme known as IKK from activating a pathway that promotes cancer growth.


The Japanese researchers noted that curcurmin’s effects on pleural mesothelioma cells is not “well defined” and requires much more study. The disease, caused by asbestos exposure, attacks the lining of the lung. It has a long latency period and is typically diagnosed in later stages. Chemotherapy and radiation have only limited effects on the disease, and most patients die within a year or two of diagnosis.


But earlier research at John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit examined the biological and molecular responses of pleural mesothelioma cells to curcumin. That study, which involved mesothelioma cells in the lab and injected into mice, suggests the spice can disrupt the cell cycle and promote apoptosis, or cell death.