Turmeric, the trendy spicy that’s making its way into lattes, could be key in defeating pancreatic cancer drug resistance.
Turmeric is best recognized by its bright golden orange hues. The plant is part of the ginger family and has been used in Asia for thousands of years as a food flavoring agent and as a dye agent. Although the plant had also been used to treat diseases, it’s not until recently that researchers took a closer look at turmeric for medicinal uses. As it turns out, curcumin, the main chemical constituent in turmeric, has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Most recently, curcumin made the list as one of three plant-based compounds with anticancer properties against prostate cancer.
One of the major challenges in caring for patients with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is the development of drug resistance. With exposure to chemotherapy, pancreatic cancer cells learn to recognize and fight the effects of the drugs. The phenomenon is termed chemoresistance, and it contributes to PDAC being the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US.
For this study, researchers from Baylor Scott & White Research Institute wanted to explore whether curcumin could make pancreatic cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy. Minimizing chemoresistance would go a long way in improving the treatment outcome for patients with PDAC.
Indeed, when the team subjected the pancreatic cancer cells to curcumin, the cells became more sensitive to gemcitabine, a chemotherapy drug. Researchers think curcumin’s ability to block chemoresistance is due to the inhibition of the EZH2 pathway by the molecule. Of note, the EZH2 pathway (Enhancer of Zeste Homolog-2) has been implicated in promoting drug resistance.
“By treating certain cells with small doses of curcumin, we were able to reverse the pathways that lead to chemoresistance,” said Dr. Ajay Goel, director of gastrointestinal research and translational genomics and oncology at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute, and the study’s senior lead. “This is an important breakthrough that could lead to better prognosis and longer lives for patients with chemoresistant pancreatic cancer.”
Exposure to curcumin also prevented the pancreatic cancer cells from forming spheroids – structures that represent hallmarks of cancer stem cells. In preventing spheroids from forming, curcumin effectively reduced tumor growth and recurrence, at least in cell cultures.
The current study has yet to be replicated in an animal model, or in humans. Thus, whether turmeric extracts could really be a chemotherapy aid to pancreatic cancer treatment remains to be seen. Until then, patients would be wise to not adopt any sudden dietary changes involving turmeric just yet.
For now, Dr. Goel’s team keeps a broader, optimistic perspective concerning the healing powers of natural compounds like turmeric. “Food-based botanicals have the potential to restore a healthier gene expression in patients but without the toxicity of certain drugs,” said Dr. Goel.