The compound capsaicin, which gives the chilly its burning sensation when tasted in the mouth, could one day be turned into a therapeutic cancer remedy, a new study showed.
Back in 2006, scientist found evidence that high doses of capsaicin could kill prostate cancer cells in mice while leaving healthy cells unharmed, but cancer-affected humans would have to eat vast amounts of peppers each week to get the dose needed.
A much better option would be to turn the precious compound into a concentrated drug, but, so far no one has understood exactly how it brings about cancer cell death The process is scientifically termed apoptosis or cell death necessary to make way for new cells and to remove cells whose DNA has been damaged to the point at which cancerous change is liable to occur.
Now scientists in India have shown for the first time how capsaicin binds to a cancer cell and triggers changes within it. This of course is the first step towards harnessing the compound’s effect in medication.
The researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras were able to detect how the compound interacts with cell membranes by monitoring its natural fluorescence. They found that the capsaicin binds to the surface of a cancer cell, and then lodges itself into the cell’s membrane.
The presence of the compound then begins to trigger chemical changes in the membrane, and if you add enough of it, it actually causes the membranes to come apart.
The research team still does not quite understand the molecular pathway causing this reaction, but further research could help to unlock ways to thoroughly harness this healing effect in future cancer treatments.
At this point, we are probably a very long way away from being able to use capsaicin therapeutically, but the best part about the compound is that it does not seem to affect healthy cells, and many humans already safely tolerate it.
The next step will be to figure out what exactly is going on inside the cell membrane, and also how this process happens inside the human body. Afterwards, the next challenge will be to figure out the best way to trigger this effect again.
The original research, conducted back in 2006, also did not clearly show that capsaicin could stop prostate cancer. Rather, it slowed the tumor growth of by about 80%, which is good, but it also suggests that the compound will need to be combined with another type of cancer-fighting molecule if it is used as a drug.
So, it is really early to stock up habañera peppers just as yet. For sure, they will set your mouth on fire while the other effects may not be felt.
However, this is promising lead on a new compound that could help fight cancer, which is something we very much need all over the world.
The Journal of Physical Chemistry B.