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New Way to Get Curcumin into Tumors

Turmeric with curcumin molecule in powder

Conventional mesothelioma treatments can improve quality and length of life, but they do not offer a cure for the disease.

This leads some people to try complementary and alternative medicine, which may provide a sense of control with an overwhelming situation.

One popular substance promoted for its anti-cancer effects comes from the culinary spice turmeric. It’s called curcumin and is available in dietary supplements.

These dietary supplements haven’t translated into cancer treatments because curcumin is not well absorbed and likely doesn’t reach cancer cells when taken orally.

But a July 2018 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes how scientists have used chemistry to improve curcumin’s ability to enter cancer cells.

This represents “an effective delivery system that transports Cur [curcumin] into the cancer cells,” the study’s authors wrote.

Curcumin Well Studied Against Cancer and Mesothelioma Cells

Thousands of scientific publications on turmeric and curcumin have been published in the past few decades. Many have focused on cancer.

Cell and animal studies have demonstrated curcumin can limit the growth of mesothelioma cells in laboratory settings.

A 2017 paper published in Oncotarget described how turmeric can curb mesothelioma cell growth. When applied directly to peritoneal mesothelioma in mice, it led to fewer and smaller tumors and longer life compared with mice not receiving the treatment.

Although these results are exciting, they highlight the problems with this approach. Unless curcumin is applied directly to mesothelioma cells, it isn’t likely to help patients with the disease.

It would be impossible for typical turmeric or curcumin supplements taken by mouth to reach mesothelioma tumors.

Solving the Curcumin Delivery Challenge

Dr. Dipanjan Pan oversees the Laboratory for Materials in Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where researchers tackled the problem of how to deliver curcumin to cancer cells more effectively.

“Curcumin is therapeutic, but the full effect can’t be utilized because it’s poorly soluble in water,” Dr. Pan noted in a press release.

Only water-soluble substances can be transported effectively in the bloodstream.

The researchers used a complex chemistry process to combine curcumin with the metal platinum. The new curcumin-platinum combination offered two important benefits:

  • It was now able to dissolve in water.

  • It was over 100 times more effective at treating cancer cells in the lab compared with platinum or curcumin alone.

Why Platinum?

Platinum is a good choice for improving the cancer-killing effects of curcumin.

Several approved chemotherapy medications are based on platinum, including cisplatin, carboplatin, oxaliplatin and nedaplatin.

As the study authors reported, the combination of platinum and curcumin was much more effective than either substance alone.

Curcumin and Mesothelioma Treatment

When used as recommended, curcumin supplements are considered safe for most people, but that doesn’t mean you should begin taking them.

Some supplements can worsen treatment side effects or render mesothelioma therapies less effective.

This is why cancer patients in active treatment should not take these products or other over-the-counter medications without discussing it with their oncologist first.

It’s also important to stick with your treatment plan. Cancer patients who opt to use alternative medicine instead of conventional therapies fare worse than patients who use approved cancer treatments.

Next Steps for Curcumin

While this new curcumin-platinum combination isn’t yet approved for use in humans, ClinicalTrials.gov lists dozens of investigations studying other forms of curcumin to treat cancer.

The number of studies shows researchers’ avid interest in curcumin. The newly created water-soluble form of curcumin is likely to make its way into clinical trials in the future as well.


Suzanne Dixon is a registered dietitian, epidemiologist and experienced medical writer. She has volunteered with the National Cancer Policy Forum, Oncology Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, American Institute for Cancer Research, American Society for Clinical Oncology, The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The New York Times and Time Magazine also have reviewed her cancer patient resources. Read More

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