By Prof. Merimsky-Specialist in Oncology

The ancient Indian spicy strikes again! The new study finds that the extract of turmeric selectively and safely killing stem cell cancer in a way that chemotherapy and radiation can not.

A new study published in the journal Anticancer Research reveals that it is one of the most intense and most promising natural compounds for the treatment of cancer in the world: the primary polyphenol in an ancient spicy known as turmeric has the ability to selectively attack stem cell cancer.
Curcumin and Cancer Stem Cells: Curcumin Has Asymmetric Effects on Cancer and Normal Stem Cells“, the study describes a wide range of molecular mechanisms that are currently identified by which curcumin attacks cancer stem cell cells, which are minority subpopulations – cell renewal within the colony of the tumor, and which are capable of producing other cells within the tumor, making them the deadliest of all cells in most if not all types of cancers. Because CSCs are resistant to chemotherapy, radiation and even can be caused by increased invasiveness through surgery, they are considered responsible for the recurrence of tumors and the failure of conventional treatment.
The study identified the following 8 molecular mechanisms by which curcumin targets and kills stem cell cancer:

  • Down-regulation of interleukin-6 (IL-6): IL-6 is classified as a cytokine (a potent biomolecule released by the immune system) and modulates both immunity and inflammation. It’s over expression has been linked to the progression from inflammation to cancer. Curcumin inhibits IL-6 release, which in turn prevents CSC stimulation.
  • Down-regulation of interleukin-8 (IL-8): IL-8, another cytokine, is released after tumor cell death, subsequently stimulating CSCs to regrow the tumor and resist chemotherapy. Curcumin both inhibits IL-8 production directly and indirectly.
  • Down-regulation of interleukin-1 (IL-1): IL-1, a family of cytokines, are involved in response to injury and infection, with IL-1 β playing a key role in cancer cell growth and the stimulation of CSCs. Curcumin inhibits IL-1 both directly and indirectly.
  • Decrease CXCR1 and CXCR2 binding: CXCR1 and CXCR2 are proteins expressed on cells, including CSCs, which respond to the aforementioned cytokines in a deleterious manner. Curcumin has been found to not only block cytokine release, but their binding to these two cellular targets.
  • Modulation of the Wnt signaling pathway: The Wnt signaling pathway regulates a wide range of processes during embryonic development, but are also dsyregulated in cancer. Curcumin has been found to have a corrective action on Wnt signaling.
  • Modulation of the Notch Pathway: The Notch signaling pathway, also involved in embryogenesis, plays a key role in regulating cell differentiation, proliferation and programmed cell death (apoptosis), as well as the functioning of normal stem cells. Aberrant Notch signaling has been implicated in a wide range of cancers. Curcumin has been found to suppress tumor cells along the Notch pathway.
  • Modulation of the Hedgehog Pathways: Another pathway involved in embryogenesis, the Hedgehog pathway also regulates normal stem cell activity. Abnormal functioning of this pathway is implicated in a wide range of cancers and in the stimulation of CSCs and associated increases in tumor recurrence after conventional treatment. Curcumin has been found to inhibit the Hedgehog pathway through a number of different mechanisms.
  • Modulation of the FAK/AKT/FOXo3A Pathway: This pathway plays a key role in regulating normal stem cells, with aberrant signaling stimulating CSCs, resulting once again in tumor recurrence and resistance to chemotherapy. Curcumin has been found in multiple studies to destroy CSCs through inhibiting this pathway.

As you can see through these eight examples above, curcumin shows a rather deep level of complexity, modulating numerous molecular pathways simultaneously. Conventional cytotoxic chemotherapy is not capable of such delicate and “intelligent” behavior, since it prefers to target fast-replicating cells by damaging their DNA at the vulnerable phase of mitosis, whether benign, healthy or cancerous. On the other hand, selective cytotoxicity of Kurkumina targets the most dangerous cells – stem cell cancer – leaving unharmed normal cells, as we will now learn more about it below.

Curcumin and normal stem cells

Normal stem cells (NSCs) are essential for health because they are responsible for differentiation into normal cells that are needed to replace damaged or diseased. If curcumin kills normal cells, such as radiation and chemotherapy, this would not be an exceptional alternative to these treatments.

The study dealt with this point:

“Turmeric safety has long been established, because it has been used for centuries as dietary spice. The question arises as to why curcumin does not to have the same harmful effect on normal stem cells (NSCs) as is the case with the CSCs. There are several possible reasons for curcumin to have toxic effects on the CSCs while sparing the NSCs.

The study offered three potential explanations for curcumin’s differential or selective cytotoxicity:

  • Malignant cells take much more curcumin than normal cells.
  • Curcumin changes the cell micro-circulation in such a way that it is unfavorable for the CSCs and useful for the NSCs.
  • Curcumin can not only directly attack CSCs, but can also encourage them to differentiate into non-lethal, benign cells.


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