Curcumin Helps Change Gene Function to Combat Cancer

By: Byron J. Richards, Board Certified Clinical Nutritionist
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Somewhat quietly, in state-of-the-art molecular facilities at the world-renowned University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, is almost secret research on the power of nutrition to kill cancer and help traditional cancer therapies work better. After all, the MD Anderson Cancer Center is at the forefront of newfangled biological cancer medicines and has been a bastion of support for the rather toxic cancer treatments that have dominated Western medicine for decades. On April 21, 2011 researchers published a groundbreaking scientific review of their research on their favorite anti-cancer nutrient – curcumin. Times are a changing.

Their fascination with nutrition is born out of the fact that various nutrients seem to possess intelligence – meaning they can actually tell the difference between a healthy cell and a cancer cell. They are actively researching curcumin, tocotrienols, green tea, quercetin, resveratrol, and many other natural substances. In the case of cancer cells, these nutrients help unleash a powerful response designed to kill the cancer. Yet in the case of healthy cells, the nutrients promote survival and increase the ability of cells to tolerate stress. No current drugs have the ability to do this, even the newer biological medicines that are more like a gene shotgun. 

The problem for new biological medicines is that you cannot take a gene-related shotgun to the human body and expect it to survive. The same genes do different things under different health contexts. You can blast away at the core gene signal NF-kappaB, involved in driving the cancer process, but in healthy cells NF-kappaB is the brain of the cell that enables it to survive. It’s all about context. It’s all about what is switched on and what is switched off relating to the DNA. The only chance scientists have of figuring this out is by studying how nutrients function. Thus, hidden away in the Cytokine Research Laboratory of the Department of Experimental Therapeutics at the MD Anderson Cancer Center is research of necessity that is proving the unthinkable – the true genetic power of nutrition to improve health.

Unfortunately, their new study, Epigenetic Changes Induced by Curcumin and Other Natural Compounds1, is not available to read for free. Thus, I condensed and simplified what they had to say.

The researchers are interested in epigenetic regulation, which is how DNA is modified or “managed” without actual changes to DNA. In cancer, DNA has been hijacked and regulation transferred to the cancer process. How to stop this process once it starts and how to prevent it in the first place is of immense importance to the general cancer issue. It is clear that toxins, pollution, infections, infectious toxic byproducts, ongoing stress, ongoing inflammation, and free radical damage all work toward damaging DNA and creating the possibility for mutation and cancer (adverse epigenetic influences).  Such damage occurs daily in everyone and is hopefully repaired.  When damage occurs at a rate greater than repair capacity then genetic weaknesses are magnified, and cancer sets in. It is now known that this process involves epigenetic changes and these changes have the domino effect on gene activation (or inactivation). 

This is how the researchers explain their interest in curcumin:

“Recently, natural compounds, such as curcumin, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and resveratrol, have been shown to alter epigenetic mechanisms, which may lead to increased sensitivity of cancer cells to conventional agents and thus inhibition of tumor growth. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane), a yellow spice and the active component of the perennial herb Curcuma longa, commonly known as turmeric, is one of the most powerful and promising chemopreventive and anticancer agents, and epidemiological evidence demonstrates that people who incorporate high doses of this spice in their diets have a lower incidence of cancer. Furthermore, epidemiological evidence exists indicating a correlation between increased dietary intake of antioxidants and a lower incidence of morbidity and mortality. ... How curcumin exerts its powerful anticancer activities has been thoroughly investigated, and several mechanisms of action have been discovered. ... Curcumin exerts its biological activities through epigenetic modulation.”

The researchers then explain in great depth, how curcumin changes the regulation of DNA to help kill cancer. They also point out that it seems to influence some of the very same factors in healthy cells to survive better – a process they do not as yet understand (and as I explain above is a driving force for this research in the first place). It is quite fascinating that the core gene signal, NF-kappaB, typically receives instructions on what to do via the modulation of DNA by epigenetic factors. Literally hundreds of signals potentially impact NF-kappaB and influence what it will do next. In the cancer context curcumin is continually altering epigenetic signals to overthrow the hijacking process and kill the cancer. In health, curcumin is doing just the opposite. This is truly amazing research – proving the power of nutrients to help human health.

The researcher can’t say enough good things about curcumin:

“Extensive research over the past five decades has indicated that curcumin reduces blood cholesterol levels, prevents low-density lipoprotein oxidation, inhibits platelet aggregation, suppresses thrombosis and myocardial infarction, suppresses symptoms associated with type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease; inhibits HIV replication, suppresses tumor formation, enhances wound healing, protects against liver injury, increases bile secretion, protects against cataract formation, and protects against pulmonary toxicity and fibrosis. These divergent effects of curcumin seem to depend on its pleiotropic molecular effects, including the regulation of signal transduction pathways, and direct modulation of several enzymatic activities. Most of these signaling cascades lead to the activation of transcription factors.”

Their point is that curcumin not only influences epigenetic settings, but it also manages the downstream consequences, helping guide multiple steps in the way gene orders are implemented. While many natural compounds help in this regard, curcumin is clearly the favorite of researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Their enthusiasm for curcumin pervades this paper. It appears that the mainstream is finally making some connections and showing appreciation for the power of natural health.

Of course, researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center are not the only ones excited about researching the anti-cancer and health protecting properties of curcumin. Papers are published every week on the topic from all around the world. Researchers just showed that in humans damaged by arsenic poisoning that curcumin could actually repair the damage to their DNA2.  Other researchers showed that curcumin directly damages the DNA of colon cancer cells3.  And other new research showed that curcumin could block the cancer activation of HPV infected cells4 by blunting the effects of estrogen in conjunction with HPV to turn on cancer genes, indicating a potential role in the prevention and treatment of cervical cancer. The research is intense and ongoing.

In the midst of the heated turf battle between the Big Pharma-backed model of health known as Western medicine and those who advocate more natural strategies to prevent and treat health problems, there arises some common ground.  My hat is off to the researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center for their work that is advancing both Western medicine and natural health.

Referenced Studies:
  1. ^ Curcumin Influences Epigenetic Settings Assoicated with Cancer  Genes Nutr.   Reuter S, Gupta SC, Park B, Goel A, Aggarwal BB.
  2. ^ Curcumin Can Help Repair Damaged DNA  Eur J Cancer Prev.   Roy M, Sinha D, Mukherjee S, Biswas J.
  3. ^ Curcumin Induces Direct DNA Damage to Colon Cancer Cells  Mol Cell Biochem.   Lu JJ, Cai YJ, Ding J.
  4. ^ Curcumin Blocks Estrogenic Cancer Effect and Induces Cervical Cancer Cell Death  Mol Cell Biochem.   Singh M, Singh N.

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