Plant derived natural products like the active Curcumin, extracted from the root of the spice turmeric, has been extensively researched for its anti-cancer properties with insights on cellular mechanisms of how it can help synergize with specific chemotherapy. Curcumin, one of the natural products with various health benefits, has been shown to improve the efficacy of specific cancer treatments / chemotherapy and reduce the side-effects.
Even though cancer cells are mutated versions of normal cells, their cellular defenses are still surprisingly strong and are able to withstand the toxic attacks of the chemotherapy to continue to survive and grow. In fact, in metastatic cancers (cancers that have spread through multiple parts of the body), chemoresistance accounts for 90% of all drug failures (Alimbetov D et al, Int J Mol Sci. 2018).
Essentially, there are several mechanisms through which cancer cells are able to eliminate the chemo toxins – one of the most important mechanisms is through a drug transport exporter protein named P-glycoprotein (PGP). Cancer cells tend to contain high amounts of this protein in their cell membranes and this PGP actively pumps out the cytotoxic chemo agents from the cells, thus lowering drug efficacy and helping the cancer cells survive longer. Another way the body deals with toxic substances is by processing them through specific organs to break them down into smaller inactive compounds, rendering the original cytotoxic substance ineffective. And finally the highly abnormal cancer cells are able to dodge the chemotherapy attack by activating parallel defence mechanisms that help their survival in the presence of the drug and when the drug is removed, these same cells will thrive with a rebound.
Thus, the average response rates of chemotherapy is about 50-60%, it is an evidence-based, guidelines-driven, one-size-fits-all approach and in the subset of patients that it does not work, they have a double whammy of dealing with the resistant cancer and the severe side-effects. Therefore most cancer patients and their loved ones are always looking for additional things they can do to improve their odds of success, such as natural remedies for cancer.
Anti-Cancer Effects of Curcumin/Turmeric
A natural product that is gaining popularity globally for its anti-cancer properties is the active Curcumin from the spice turmeric. Curcumin has been shown to block PGP protein from pushing the chemo drug out of the cell and reducing the levels of PGP expression in cancer cells through inhibiting its expression mediator (a transcription factor called NFKB) (Anuchapreeda S et al, Biochem Pharmacol. 2002; Singh S et al, J Biol Chem. 1995; Bentires-Alj M et al, Oncogene. 2003). Curcumin can help make the micro-environment more hostile for the cancer cell to survive by inhibiting oxidative stress and the sprouting of new blood supply to feed the tumor. Essentially, in a study done on the efficacy of the combination of curcumin with specific chemo drugs in a wide variety of cancer cell lines and animal tumor models, researchers found that curcumin enhanced the cytotoxic effects of the chemo via multiple molecular mechanisms targeting all stages of tumor growth (Tan BL et al, Molecules. 2019).
Despite the well researched anti-cancer properties of Curcumin, it is known to have very poor bioavailability and absorption in the body. A combination of Curcumin with black pepper extract helps improve its bioavailability. Researchers are also working on developing formulations of Curcumin from turmeric so that the cells are able to absorb a major percentage of it for it to be effective in synergizing with specific chemotherapy drugs to control and eliminate the cancer. So while it is clear that natural products like curcumin are able to show a variety of anti-cancer properties, the correct way to deliver these natural products into the body and with the correct combination of chemo drugs are still being heavily debated.
Cancer patients often have to deal with different chemotherapy side effects which affect their quality of life and look out for alternative therapies for cancer. Taking the right nutrition and supplements based on scientific considerations (avoiding guesswork and random selection) is the best natural remedy for cancer and treatment related side-effects.