Have researchers found the spice of life?

Indians believe turmeric brings health and good luck. Now Western scientists are testing its medicinal uses

March 10, 2006|By HILARY E. MACGREGOR

The goddess of turmeric brings color in life.

It is the ornament of married woman.

And any woman who puts turmeric in her purse,

Her purse will never be empty.

An old Indian folk song praises turmeric, the golden spice from the East, for its power to bring beauty, good health and good luck to those who use and carry it.

But in Indian medical lore, the pungent, woody-tasting powder is more precious still.

Modern medicine is starting to sit up and pay attention. Scientists are taking a closer look at this Asian wonder spice, teasing out active ingredients and testing its age-old cultural and medicinal uses in 21st-century laboratories.

The National Institutes of Health has funded at least eight studies investigating turmeric. The spice and a chemical it contains -- curcumin -- are being probed for their potential to prevent and treat a broad range of diseases: cancer, cystic fibrosis, Alzheimer's and arthritis.

The uses of turmeric, some described in ancient Indian medical texts, are numerous. Indians put the spice on their bandages as a disinfectant (Johnson & Johnson even makes turmeric Band-Aids for the Indian market) and sprinkle the powder on wounds to help them heal faster. People gargle with turmeric when they have laryngitis and rub it on the skin to cure cuts and psoriasis. They swallow it to treat bronchitis and chronic diseases such as diabetes.

Indian brides and grooms apply turmeric and milk to their skin before marriage, to look more beautiful. And, as anyone who has ever prepared a curry knows, turmeric is an essential cooking ingredient, used to flavor, color and preserve.

"You will find no house in India without turmeric. It is our daily spice, our daily life," said Vasant Lad, an Indian-trained practitioner who is chairman of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M.

Most of the studies so far have been on animals. But a growing number of mainstream researchers see turmeric and curcumin as possible aids in preventing and fighting disease in humans.

A relative of ginger, turmeric is a powder ground from the root of a large-leafed Asian plant. Researchers believe the curcumin it contains fights disease partly by shutting down a powerful protein that promotes an abnormal inflammatory response in the body. The spice also has potent antioxidant properties (and may even lower cholesterol).

Curcumin is medically promising because inflammation and oxidative damage are contributors to so many diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, arthritis and various cancers, said Gregory Cole, a professor of medicine and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA who has conducted numerous studies on the spice.

And, he said, there's a need for better, safer drugs to treat these conditions.

"If it is not curcumin, we need something a lot like curcumin -- something cheap and safe with a long history of use, and no side effects," Cole said.

Some clues as to turmeric's clout come from observing patterns of illness among people. For example, scientists have long noted that Indians have much lower rates of certain cancers than their American counterparts. That led researchers to wonder whether diet plays a role -- and, more specifically, the turmeric.

Mouse studies at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center have shown that the spice blocks growth of a skin cancer, melanoma, and inhibits the spread of breast cancer into the lungs.

One 2004 study with mice showed that adding curcumin to Taxol, or paclitaxel, a commonly prescribed chemotherapy for breast cancer, enhances the drug's effect, making the therapy less toxic and just as powerful.

Such studies have triggered two human clinical trials. One is testing the ability of curcumin tablets to help patients with pancreatic cancer, which kills 30,000 people a year. (Only 50 percent of patients with pancreatic cancer will live longer than six months.) Fifty patients will receive 8 grams of curcumin daily, and researchers will evaluate their six-month survival rate.

A second, more preliminary clinical trial is examining a safe and active dose of curcumin in patients with multiple myeloma, a rare cancer of the bone marrow.

The active component of turmeric turns out to be the best blocker yet of a natural chemical called TNF, or tumor necrosis factor, which contributes to cancers and arthritis and is resistant to chemotherapy drugs, said Bharat B. Aggarwal, professor of cancer medicine in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics at the Anderson Cancer Center, who has studied the spice for a decade.

Turmeric is also being studied for its ability to help treat Alzheimer's disease. The prevalence of Alzheimer's among adults in India ages 70 to 79 is among the world's lowest -- less than 25 percent of the U.S. rate.

A 2004 study reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry showed that a rodent chow laced with curcumin slowed the accumulation in mouse brains of protein fragments known as beta amyloids. They are considered key to the development of Alzheimer's.

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