Jan. 11, 2007 The chemical that gives spicy food its kick could hold the key to the next generation of anti-cancer drugs that will kill tumours with few or no side effects for the patient, say academics at The University of Nottingham.
A study by the scientists, published online in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, has proven for the first time that the chemical compound capsaicin -- which is responsible for the burning sensation when we eat chillies -- can kill cells by directly targeting their energy source.
It could mean that patients could control or prevent the onset of cancer by eating a diet rich in capsaicin and that existing products to treat conditions such as psoriasis and muscle strain, which contain the compound and are already approved for medical use, could be adapted to tackle this more serious disease.
The Nottingham study has shown that the family of compounds to which capsaicin belongs, vanilloids, can kill cancer by attacking the mitochondria of the tumour cell, commonly known as its 'powerhouse', which produces ATP, the major energy-containing chemical in the body. By binding proteins in the cancer cell mitochondria the compound triggers apoptosis, or natural cell death, without harming the healthy surrounding cells.
Dr Timothy Bates, the study's leader, is a member of the Medical Research Council (MRC) College of Experts and an internationally-renowned researcher in the areas of mitochondrial research and anti-cancer drug development. He said: "This is incredibly exciting and may explain why people living in countries like Mexico and India, who traditionally eat a diet which is very spicy, tend to have lower incidences of many cancers that are prevalent in the western world."
The compound has been tested in the laboratory on H460 human lung cancer cells, approved by the National Cancer Institute as a member of its 60 cell panel which is the 'gold standard' for testing new anti-cancer drugs, and produced startling results. Dr Bates' research team also tested similar compounds on pancreatic cancer, producing similar cell death to that observed with the lung cancer cells. These results are highly significant, as pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat and which has a five-year survival rate of less than one per cent.
"As these compounds attack the very heart of the tumour cells, we believe that we have in effect discovered a fundamental 'Achilles heel' for all cancers. The investigation and development of anti-mitochondrial drugs for cancer chemotherapy by our group is unique in the UK and is likely to be extremely significant in man's fight against cancer both here and internationally."
By its very nature capsaicin, and other vanilloids found in the human diet, are safe because we already eat them in many common foods. And some have already been passed for use in treatments for other medical conditions, reducing the number of hurdles needed to get them approved for use in cancer patients.
Dr Bates added: "To develop a new drug costs pharmaceutical companies in the region of $800 million and takes up to 10 years.
"To develop a drug for a secondary medical purpose costs far less, so compounds such as capsaicin and the others we have identified could mean big business. Capsaicin, for example, is already found in treatments for muscle strain and psoriasis -- which raises the question of whether an adapted topical treatment could be used to treat certain types of skin cancer.
"We have already identified a number of compounds that are currently used in man for other diseases that have (secondary) anti-cancer actions. We are currently seeking industrial partners to enable these agents to be used in clinical trials with colleagues from Nottingham and other centres in the UK to treat a variety of cancers both in adults and, in particular, in children's cancers, where their younger cells are already 'primed' to die by apoptosis making them more susceptible to these agents.
"It's also possible that cancer patients or those at risk of developing cancer could be advised to eat a diet which is richer in spicy foods to help treat or prevent the disease."
The study has brought together researchers from The University of Nottingham's Schools of Community Health Sciences, Medical and Surgical Sciences and Biomedical Sciences and colleagues from the Welsh School of Pharmacy at Cardiff University.
The study is also the first by the newly-established Nottingham UK-China Collaboration on Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NUKCAM), which consists of researchers from The University of Nottingham and the Chinese National Academy of Sciences, including Professor De-An Guo, Head of the Shanghai Research Centre for Traditional Chinese Medicine Modernization. Professor Guo has expertise in separating out chemical compounds in ancient Chinese herbal remedies, and is collaborating with Dr Bates and his colleagues to establish why compounds used in Chinese medicine are successful in treating cancer and a wide range of other diseases.
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