Researchers study natural products that may prevent certain cancers

05/25/05

WINSTON-SALEM Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center have been awarded a $1 million grant by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to study properties of a folk medicine and a food spice that show promise in reducing the risk of some cancers, including prostate, colorectal and breast, and enhancing cancer treatment.

The folk medicine propolis and the food spice turmeric are rich in plant polyphenolic compounds that exhibit potent antitumor activities. Caffeic Acid Phenethyl Ester (CAPE) is the major active ingredient in propolis, a resinous substance collected by bees from the bark and leaves of trees and plants. Propolis extracts have been used since ancient times as antibacterial and anti-inflammatory remedies and in more recent studies CAPE has protected mice against radiation induced inflammation and skin damage and rats against certain forms of heart muscle damage following chemotherapy treatment.

Curcumin is the yellow pigment of the spice turmeric. Based on studies that showed dramatically reduced rates of colon cancer in populations with diets rich in curcumin, studies on the potential of curcumin to prevent cancer are underway. Human clinical trials have been initiated in the past five years, and the National Cancer Institute has been developing curcumin as an anti-cancer agent since 1988.

"A very interesting property of these compounds is that they have been shown to cause cell death in tumor cells but not in normal cells," said Costas Koumenis, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiation oncology at Wake Forest Baptist and lead investigator of the new study.

"Based on these interesting properties of CAPE and curcumin and their good safety profile, our lab has carried out studies in cell cultures and experimental animal tumors, showing that the compounds can make tumor cells more susceptible to chemotherapy and radiation, while having little effect or even reducing some of the toxic effects of radiation on normal cells," said Koumenis.

Over the next four years, Wake Forest Baptist will investigate if CAPE and curcumin enhance radiation therapy in gliomas (the most deadly brain tumors) and other tumors in animals, and also work to learn how the compounds may make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation, while protecting normal tissue.

"The differential effects of this class of compounds on normal and tumor cells are well-documented, but still remains a mystery," said Koumenis. "Discovering how they are able to do this may open the way to design drugs with similar properties but are even more potent. The agents could potentially improve treatment outcomes by increasing the percentage of lethally-damaged tumor cells, or may allow us to use lower levels of radiation, reducing potential side effects. If our data from these preclinical studies are positive, they will create the basis for human patient studies on the safety and effectiveness of these agents."

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