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‘Curry bubbles’ could help beat bowel cancer

Curcumin, the yellow pigment behind the shades of spices like turmeric – a plant often used in curries to give it flavour – has been shown to slow the growth and spread of cancers.

The digestion of curries has long been linked to the fight against bowel cancer, thanks to the elements of curcumin and capsaicin (the compound which produces the burning sensation in your mouth during a curry) which help slow the growth of any tumours in the colon.

Now laboratory tests have shown that curcumin can help kill various types of cancer cells. Scientists at the Ludwig Maximilan University in Munich have found that the spicy element can boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment in bowel cancer patients, by making the chemicals better at killing the bowel cancer cells.

The research team in Munich struck upon a problem when their effects to turn curcumin into a type of cancer treatment were hampered by problems in getting enough of the spice to reach the tumours and work their ‘magic’. Curcumin is often harder for the body to absorb, so really big doses must be consumed in order for even the smallest amounts to reach the colon where the tumours would be. Other studies carried out on the spice have shown that with curcumin supplement pills, less than a quarter of all curcumin ingested actually reaches the gut.

However, the scientists at the University of Munich have developed a way around this issue – by using exosomes, bubbles of fat, which are found in fruit plants. Exosomes contain cell-specific information about proteins, lipids, and genetic material which can be transported to other cells elsewhere in the body, where they then alter function and physiology. This way, exosomes can be used to turn curcumin into a viable treatment for bowel cancer. Curcumin isn’t easy for the body to absorb, but when transported within the exosome bubble the curcumin and the exosome are absorbed by the cell, which means it effectively delivers the right amount of curcumin direct to the target source.

Results of this research have been successful, meaning the study has moved on to human trials at the James Graham Brown Cancer Centre in the States, where other scientist are testing whether exosomes taken from fruit plants can be used to effectively deliver the curcumin to the target site in the colon. Thirty-five people who have been recently diagnosed with colon cancer and who are scheduled for surgery will take the spicy supplement orally for seven days. One group will not receive any supplement, one will take just curcumin and the other group will receive the curcumin mixed with the exosomes.

This new treatment has one positive over the use of drugs – it is unlikely to have any side effects. Both exosomes taken from fruit and curcumin are consumed by millions of people every single day, without complaint.

Dr Emma Smith, the senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK said: “This clinical trial is at an early stage and must establish that this new technology is a safe way for people to be given curcumin. Clinical trials are still ongoing, and it will be interesting to see if this new way of delivering it directly to the tumour increases its potency.”

If the clinical trials are successful, it is likely that curcumin with exosomes taken as an oral supplement will be used in conjunction with chemotherapy in order to make a significant difference to the outlook of hundreds of thousands of bowel cancer patients each year.

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