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Spicing Up Cancer Prevention

Findings offer insight on curcumin's cancer-preventing activity

January 25, 2011 | Leigh MacMillan

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Curcumin – the active ingredient that flavors curries and gives the Indian spice turmeric its yellow color – is being studied for its ability to prevent tumor development. Its efficacy, however, is limited by chemical and metabolic instability. Previous studies have focused on the non-enzymatic (not mediated by a protein) cleavage of curcumin into smaller fragments.

Claus Schneider, Ph.D., and colleagues have now characterized a new pathway for the metabolism of curcumin. They report in the Jan. 14 Journal of Biological Chemistry that curcumin undergoes an oxidation reaction – either spontaneously or mediated by the protein COX-2 – to form a different chemical structure. They showed that the oxidation pathway is preferred to the cleavage pathway in mouse macrophage-like cells.

They also found that the pathway generates an intermediate compound – a reactive chemical called a quinone methide. Because anti-cancer drugs with chemical components (phenol rings) like curcumin work by forming quinone methides, the findings suggest that the oxidative transformation of curcumin may contribute to its cancer-preventing activity.

For other research highlights from Vanderbilt University Medical Center laboratories, see ‘Aliquots‘ in the VUMC Reporter.