Monday, May 9, 2011

Is Curcumin a Colon Cancer Cure?

Curcumin, the antioxidant found in turmeric, has some potent anti-cancer effects. It's an exaggeration to call it a "cure-cumin" for colon cancer, but it may be extraordinarily helpful.
Curcumin exerts health effects not just by interacting with important chemicals involved in the body's response to cancer, but also by activating or inhibiting important genes. At least in laboratory experiments, curcumin may have these roles in colon cancer cures:
  • Activates the genes that code the enzyme glutamate cysteine ligase, which controls how much of the antioxidant glutathione the cells can make to protect its DNA.
  • Eliminates colon cancer "stem cells" when applied with the chemotherapy agent 5-FU.
  • Inhibits the p53 gene that causes apoptosis ("cellular suicide") in colon cancer cells.
  • Inhibits the metalloproteinases that help a cancerous tumor develop its own blood supply.
  • Inhibits the action of the Apc (adenomatous polyposis coli) gene that is associated with formation of numerous precancerous polyps.
  • Inhibits the action of the liver enzyme CYP1A1, which makes the aromatic hydrocarbons in gasoline and solvents toxic.
If you read this list closely, you will notice that all the effects of curcumin in colon cancer are not beneficial. Interfering with the p53 gene makes colon cancer more likely to multiply, not less. However, the p53 gene is more important in stage III colon cancer than stage I or stage II.

And because curcumin is difficult to absorb, it is more useful in treating stomach and colon cancers than cancers in other parts of the body. There is a low-tech approach to making curcumin more readily avaiable to the colon, mixing it with guar bean gum so that it "sticks" to the colon longer. There is also a high-tech approach to making curcumin more readily available to the colon, encapsulating it in nanoparticles, a method developed at West China Medical School of Sichuan University in Chengdu, China.

If you have colon cancer or you are concerned that you might be at high-risk for colon cancer, does it make sense to take curcumin? Here are some basic considerations:

  • Curry powder is about 3% curcumin. It's simply a lot easier to get more curcumin from supplements than food.
  • Clinical studies have found that curcumin is safe for colon cancer patients (although you should not take it or any other supplement without having a discussion with your doctor first). Up to 8 grams (8,000 mg) a day has not produced ill effects.
  • Clinical studies of advanced colon cancer patients who were also receiving chemotherapy found that curcumin extended life in about 10% of cases.  There are no reliable studies on the effect on colon cancer survival rates.
  • Scientists at Baylor Medical School in Houston, Texas report that curcumin increases the sensitivity of cancer cells to chemotherapy with doxorubicin, 5-FU, paclitaxel, vincristine, melphalan, butyrate, cisplatin, celecoxib, vinorelbine, gemcitabine, oxaliplatin, etoposide, sulfinosine, thalidomide, and bortezomib.
  • Baylor Medical School scientists also report that curcumin may protect the heart and mouth from side effects of radiation treatment.
There just haven't been any studies in which colon cancer patients were given curcumin as their sole treatment. Most doctors consider it unethical not to give a cancer patient chemotherapy, even if the objective of the study is to find out if curcumin might work better by itself. Within the framework of standard cancer treatment, however, curcumin seems to make conventional cancer treatments work better, so it might be possible to have fewer treatments or lower doses. 

These are issues colon cancer patients have to work out with their doctors. Chances are that your oncologist has at least heard of curcumin in colon cancer treatment. Be absolutely sure that you and your doctor are on the same page, and then try adding curcumin to your daily routine to see if conventional treatments work better.

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