Curcumin, Chemo Combination Suppresses Cancer

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Researchers have found that curcumin from the Indian spice turmeric suppresses cancer of the head and neck when combined with chemotherapy. Scientists studied the effect in the lab by making an injectable preparation. They found that curcumin, combined with the chemotherapy drug Cisplatin, stopped head and neck cancer in mice.

Dr. Marilene Wang, a professor of head and neck surgery and lead author of the study and a Jonsson Cancer Center researcher says, “Head and neck cancers, particularly cases diagnosed in a later stage, are terrible cancers that often require very radical surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation. They often don’t present until late, and the structures in the head and neck are so vital that our treatments often cause disfigurement and severe loss of function. So using non-toxic curcumin as a treatment was a very appealing idea.”

Chemotherapy and Curcumin Combination Less Toxic

A 2005 study revealed curcumin could suppress the growth of head and neck cancer. At the time the scientists applied the compound as a paste directly to tumors, first on cells then using mice.

Dr. Kapil Mehta of M.D. Anderson Cancer assisted Dr. Wang and Eri Srivatsan, a researcher and professor who also studies curcumin, in finding a better delivery method to fight cancer. Dr. Mehta found a way to encapsulate the spice derivative in a membranous liposome, making the treatment injectable. When the liposome was injected into a mouse tail in 2008 it circulated throughout the bloodstream, slowing and eventually stopping cancer growth.

“This was a very positive finding, developing an efficient way to deliver the treatment,” Wang said. “Our study also showed that the curcumin was very well tolerated.”

The researchers then wanted to see what effect curcumin, combined with Cisplatin would have on halting cancer. The hope was the dose of the chemotherapy drug could be reduced, causing less toxicity to the body. The results showed that the turmeric derivative made the chemotherapy drug work better.


The researchers say the findings are very promising. "We knew that both the curcumin and the Cisplatin, when given alone, had an effect against head and neck cancers,” Wang said. “This finding that curcumin enhances Cisplatin means that, in the future, we may be able to give this chemotherapy in lower doses.”

Curcumin suppressed cancer growth by regulating cell cycling that signals enzymes and causes cancer cells to grow. Cisplatin uses a different pathway through tumor suppressor proteins p16 and p53 that in turn restricts NFκB that also promotes cancer growth.

The researchers plan to study patients given curcumin orally, before and after head and neck cancer surgery to determine the effect of the compound on tumor growth markers such as NFκB. Following their analysis they then plan to give curcumin to patients receiving chemotherapy and radiation to see if the lab and mouse studies can be replicated in humans.

Dr. Wang says curcumin from the turmeric spice also suppresses other cancers including breast, colon and pancreatic, but unlike the current study, the exact mechanism is not yet known. He also says the compound may be useful for Alzheimer's disease and aging.

It takes about 500 mg of curcumin to obtain health benefits, says Wang. Though turmeric is used in cooking, adding the spice to foods is not likely to provide results.

The new study builds on past research supporting the cancer fighting powers of turmeric. Curcumin, combined with chemotherapy, could mean less toxic drug treatment for head, neck and other types of cancers, based on the study results.


Updated July 3, 2015