The spice turmeric is best known for giving Indian curries and chutneys their distinctive flavor and yellow tint. Yet this herb is almost as well-known for its many health benefits, including its anti-inflammatory properties, which may help combat cancer. A recent study in the journal Nutrition and Cancer finds that curcumin—a compound in turmeric—halts the growth of pancreatic cancer, particularly when combined with omega-3 fatty acids.
Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest of all cancers. Only about three percent of patients survive five years after being diagnosed. “One major challenge is the lack of appropriate technologies for early diagnosis, and most pancreatic cancer patients will be diagnosed at a very late stage,” explains Chinthalapally V. Rao, PhD, professor in Medical Oncology and Director of the Cancer Chemoprevention Program at the University of Oklahoma Cancer Institute.
Currently chemotherapy with gemcitabine is the main treatment for pancreatic cancer, but doctors are anxious to find new therapies that will improve survival and reduce side effects. “Our aim is to develop alternative strategies to prevent and treat high-risk pancreatic cancer patients using non-toxic, naturally occurring agents,” Dr. Rao says.
Because inflammation plays a key role in pancreatic cancer development, scientists have recently focused on anti-inflammatory medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Yet these drugs can pose serious heart risks, and researchers have been on the hunt for treatments with a better safety profile.
Curcumin has been shown to inhibit enzymes linked to inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in cold-water fish such as salmon and sardines, also have anti-inflammatory properties. Past studies have found that both curcumin and omega-3s can help prevent cancer. Dr. Rao and his colleagues wanted to find out whether combining the two substances might have a cumulative effect, enhancing the cancer-fighting abilities of both substances.
First, the researchers tested out the effects of curcumin and the omega-3 docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) on pancreatic cancer cells in the laboratory. Both DHA and curcumin inhibited pancreatic cell growth and triggered the process of programmed cell death (apoptosis). When the two substances were combined, the effect was far more pronounced, increasing cancer cell death four- to eightfold.
Then, the researchers fed mice with pancreatic cancer tumors fish oil and curcumin separately, and together. The fatty acids reduced the tumor growth by 25 percent, and the curcumin by 43 percent. But when the two were combined, they reduced tumor growth by more than 70 percent. Both the fish oil and curcumin also reduced the activity of inflammation factors that are known to decrease survival in pancreatic cancer patients.
The researchers didn’t note any side effects from the treatment. “In fact, curcumin is one of the safest agents ever tested in cancer prevention,” Dr. Rao says.
Human clinical trials are in the works. Until the results are available, patients being treated for pancreatic cancer can discuss the benefits of this therapy with their doctor. Both fish oil and curcumin are available in supplement form, and are used to prevent a variety of diseases. Before using any supplement you should speak to your licensed healthcare practitioner.
Swamy MV, Citineni B, Patlolla JMR, Mohammed A, Zhang Y, Rao CV. Prevention and treatment of pancreatic cancer by curcumin in combination with omega-3 fatty acids. Nutrition and Cancer. 2008;60:81-89.