Killing Cancer, the Haldi(Turmeric) Way

Researchers have successfully trapped curcumin in nanoparticles and this may finally allow the turmeric component to be used as a tumour-fighting agent.

In the laboratory of physician-researcher Anirban Maitra, a tiny vial of liquid portrays the fusion of a 21st century technology and traditional Indian medicine, brought together by a common spice — turmeric or haldi.

The liquid contains billions of microscopic balls constructed out of a polymer-like material, each loaded with a tiny amount of curcumin, the yellow ingredient of turmeric. Each ball is a Trojan horse — a weapon designed to enter tumour cells and initiate their destruction. Maitra, associate professor at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, believes these balls will allow curcumin to finally emerge as an effective cancer-fighting agent.

Maitra is part of a father-son team Maitra is part of a father-son team working from two sides of the world that has succeeded in trapping curcumin in nanoparticles, particles so tiny that tens of thousands of them would fit on top of a pinhead.

In the past five years, dozens of studies in India and abroad have established the efficacy of curcumin as a potential treatment for a number of cancers simulated in the laboratory. Some studies have also demonstrated the beneficial effects of curcumin in a number of non-cancerous conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and cystic fibrosis.

Curcumin is among the most attractive among promising new therapeutic agents because it’s been taken through food for centuries without any side effects,” Maitra told KnowHow. “But a single problem has prevented its widespread testing in humans — it’s poor solubility,” he said.

For oral curcumin to be efficiently absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream — so that it can reach various organs — solubility is crucial. An insoluble drug is excreted from the gut. While free curcumin “bathes” the gastrointestinal tract, little of it reaches the circulating blood, said Maitra. “So for diseases involving the gastrointestinal tract, such as colon cancer, free curcumin is okay, but for other diseases, it’s not suitable,” he said.

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Curcumin and nanocurcumin in water, and turmeric

Curcumin therapy would require a patient to take 12 to 20 grams of oral curcumin each day, that is, some 24 to 40 capsules each containing 500 mg of curcumin. Studies have shown that beyond 12 grams, the after-taste becomes unbearable for a patient.

The nanocurcumin is soluble in water and is thus enabled to slip into the bloodstream and travel to different organs. The idea of encapsulating curcumin in nanoparticles was hatched during transcontinental telephone calls between Maitra and his father Amarnath Maitra, professor of chemistry at the University of Delhi, who has been investigating the potential of nanoparticles for drug delivery over the past decade.

Prof. Maitra and his student Sheetal Soni synthesised the nanoparticles — about 100 nanometres in size — that are hydrophobic (water-repellent) on the inside and hydrophilic (water-loving) on the outside.

“This unique property allows hydrophobic drugs like curcumin to be encapsulated inside the nanoparticle where the region is hydrophobic, while the nanoparticle itself with a hydrophilic outer coat is easily soluble in water or other water-containing liquids,” Maitra said. The John Hopkins-Delhi University team published its findings in the latest issue of the Journal of Nanobiotechnology.

While the Delhi researchers synthesised the nanoparticles and determined their properties, the US collaborators conducted studies in human cancer cells maintained in laboratory test tubes to study the behaviour of nanocurcumin. The studies show that nanocurcumin is equal to or better than free curcumin against the human cancer cells. The scientists now plan to conduct studies to evaluate the tumour fighting in animals.

There are two ways through which the nanocurcumin circulating in the bloodstream may reach tumours. Left to themselves, the nanoparticles are likely to accumulate in tumour cells because tumours have leaky blood vessels — they have tiny perforations that would allow the particles to seep out. But there is another, more ambitious, delivery technique which Maitra says is the “more superior option”.

“We can attach a special molecule to the surface of the nanoparticle that allows it to be delivered selectively to specific types of cells such as cancer cells,” Maitra said. Such a nanoparticle would home in on cancer cells like guided missiles. In laboratory experiments, Maitra’s team has shown that in pancreatic cancer cells the curcumin initiates a sequence of cellular events that cause the cell to commit suicide.

Enzymes in the cells then degrade the nanoparticles, allowing curcumin to seep out and begin acting on the target tumour cells. The nanoparticles are made from a polymer that is degraded in the body and excreted.

Source: The Telegraoh (Kolkata,India)

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