A compound found in turmeric could unlock new treatments in the battle against cancer, a scientific review has suggested.
Researchers say the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant powers of curcumin mean it could halt the development of tumours.
They analysed almost 5,000 studies and found it blocked the growth of eight types of cancers, under laboratory settings.
Results showed it was effective at treating breast, lung, blood, stomach, pancreatic, bowel, bone marrow and prostate cancer.
The academics from Temple University in Philadelphia say curcumin stops nutrients from being transported to tumours.
It also prevents the death of healthy cells by blocking cancer cells from releasing harmful proteins.
The academics concluded curcumin – the pigment in turmeric that gives it its colour – could ‘represent an effective drug for cancer treatment, alone or combined with other agents’.
But although it is widely used in Eastern medicine, and has been studied for its anti-inflammatory and anti-septic effects, curcumin is not an option currently.
This is because it has never been tested in large-scale human trials, a necessary requirement for all medicines.
The Temple University scientists hope their finding will spur on more clinical studies of curcumin’s effect on cancer.
The therapeutic benefits of the spice have been shown in multiple chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and liver disease.
Some experiments have also shown it can help speed recovery after surgery, as well as treat arthritis.
As part of the latest review, researchers, led by Dr Antonio Giordano, a pathologist at Temple, scoured studies on curcumin published since 1924.
They found 12,595 papers on the compound, but whittled them down to 4,738 that specifically looked at its effect on cancer.
Writing in the paper, published in the journal Nutrients, the authors said: ‘The search for new effective drugs able to combat cancer diseases still represents a challenge for many scientists.
‘Natural organisms (e.g., plants, bacteria, fungi) provide many active molecules with a potential application in medicine for the management of many diseases.
‘As reported in the present review, curcumin exhibits anticancer ability by targeting different cell signaling pathways including growth factors, [the transport of nutrients and killing healthy cells].’
However, they warn it is not a miracle drug as previous studies have shown it causes number of side effects, including diarrhoea, vomiting and headaches.
Curcumin is also poorly absorbed by the body, which would limits it efficacy in treating cancer.
A Cancer Research UK spokesperson said: ‘There is some evidence that curcumin, a substance in turmeric, can kill cancer cells in certain cancers. But we need more research.
‘It seems to be able to kill cancer cells and prevent more from growing. It has the best effects on breast cancer, bowel cancer, stomach cancer and skin cancer cells.
‘At the moment there is no clear evidence in humans to show that turmeric or curcumin can prevent or treat cancer.’