Curcumin is the principal antioxidant found in turmeric, a spice derived from the Curcuma longa root, which is a member of the ginger family. Curcumin gives turmeric both its bright yellow color and a number of health benefits that include liver health, prostate health, and joint health. Resent research provided certain scientific evidence that curcumin consumption may benefit pancreas health.
Since the time of Ayurveda (1900 Bc) numerous therapeutic activities have been assigned to turmeric for a wide variety of diseases and conditions, including those of the skin, pulmonary, and gastrointestinal systems, aches, pains, wounds, sprains, and liver disorders. Extensive research within the last half century has proven that most of these activities, once associated with turmeric, are due to curcumin. Curcumin has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anticancer activities and thus has a potential against various malignant diseases, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, and other chronic illnesses. These effects are mediated through the regulation of various transcription factors, growth factors, inflammatory cytokines, protein kinases, and other enzymes.
In the study, completed by Razelle Kurzrock, M.D., chair of M. D. Anderson’s Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics, 25 patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer received 8 grams of curcumin per day for 8 weeks with no adjunctive chemotherapy or radiation treatment. The patients were re-evaluated every 8 weeks and allowed to continue taking the curcumin supplements as long as their pancreatic cancer did not progress (methods of tumor measurement were done as in previous studies). Patients provided blood samples to measure for a number of immune system proteins found to be associated with pancreatic cancer and had their blood samples compared to 42 healthy volunteers with no evidence of pancreatic cancer and who were not given curcumin.
While no patients reported any toxic effects of the curcumin supplementation, only 2 of the 25 pancreatic cancer patients experienced any benefits from the curcumin. This low ratio was thought to be due to the very low rate of absorption of curcumin, with larger doses than 8 grams per day most likely needed for an effect in the patients.
The effects in the 2 patients, however, were significant. Specifically, 1 patient was able to take curcumin for 18 months with no cancer progression while the other patient had a 73% reduction in their cancer, although this effect was “short-lived” and the cancer eventually progressed (the researchers did not specify how long the “short-lived” period lasted).
For the researchers, “our current study shows that oral curcumin is tolerated without toxicity at doses of 8 grams per day for up to 18 months”. But curcumin’s poor absorption is “a key question” as higher dosage levels are needed to see curcumin’s “potent activity against pancreatic cancer”. Nevertheless, “curcumin is well tolerated and, despite its limited absorption, has biological activity in some patients with pancreatic cancer.”
Knowledge of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties and the growing realization that cancer can result from inflammation has spurred mounting interest in the spice, Aggarwal says.
The study was conceived and developed through a collaboration among Kurzrock, who chairs a department devoted to studies with new drugs; James Abbruzzese, M.D., chair of M. D. Anderson's Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology and an expert in pancreatic cancer.
Curcumin mechanisms and sources
Curcumin is the yellow pigment associated with the curry spice, Turmeric, and to a lesser extent Ginger. It exerts potent anti-inflammatory effects, and these anti-inflammatory effects seem to be quite protective against some form of cancer progression. However, curcumin has additional anti-cancer effects that are independent of its anti-inflammatory effects and thus is a heavily researched molecule for both cancer prevention and treatment. Like Vitamin D, Curcumin helps to control the reproduction of cells within the body. It controls the signal to cells to divide, therefore preventing unnecessary division in both healthy and unhealthy cells. So, curcumin also promotes apoptosis (cell death) in cancer cells without damaging other healthy cells, enhances the efficiency of other cancer-killing treatments and helps to regulate tumor suppressor pathways that feed tumors, helping to starve them of nutrients and restricting growth.
It has a poor oral bioavailability (a low percentage of what you consume is absorbed) and thus should be enhanced with other agents such as black pepper extract, called piperine. This is unless you want the curcumin in your colon (as it is a colon anti-inflammatory and can help with digestion), in which case you wouldn't pair it with an enhancement.
Doses up to 8g curcuminoids in humans have been shown to not be associated with much adverse effects at all, and in vitro tests suggest curcumin has quite a large safety threshold.
Curry doesn’t cure cancer
While the preliminary results are encouraging, there are more studies needed to assess the potential positive effect of the curcumin on pancreatic cancer patients. You may remember a few years ago, early reports of research into turmeric spawned a range of “curry cures cancer” headlines. Unfortunately, these claims has not been supported by scientific data, they are totally misleading and are not helpful for people coping with the disease.
Yes, obtained evidence does not justify eating more curry or taking turmeric supplements. Curries aren’t always the healthiest of meals, and in general there isn’t any evidence that supplements can help to reduce the risk of cancer. And worryingly, there have been reports of contamination in certain turmeric supplements in the past.
But… is it useless?
Yes, you should not expect miracle cure from curcumin, but remember that currently there are only 2 FDA approved drugs for the treatment of patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, and both of those drugs (gemcitabine and erlotinib) are only effective in less than 10% of patients. So the Curcumin's effectiveness is quite similar to the chemo agents.
A worth to remind that a critical point to know about curcumin is that it is very poorly absorbed (blood levels were very low, peaking at 22 to 41 ng/mL). The good news is that the absorption of Curcumin can be markedly increased by taking black pepper with it (the piperine in pepper enhances the absorption). Alternatively, curcumin products are available that have been shown to be better absorbed. For example, Curcugel (available online at many shops) was found in 1 study to be absorbed 8 times as well as plain curcumin. If you decide to would take 4-8 capsules of the Curcugel or 2 teaspoons of curcumin daily with ~ 1/8 teaspoon of black pepper added.
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