Surprise Pancreatic Cancer Discovery Involves Bitter Melon
A surprising way to kill pancreatic cancer cells may come from a strange looking Asian fruit. Scientists at the University of Colorado Cancer Center (UCCC) discovered that an extract of bitter melon has an effect on pancreatic cancer cells that can lead to their death.
Bitter melon may offer a sweet benefit
Bitter melon has been in health-related news previously, as this bumpy fruit has been shown to possess an ability to help individuals who have type 2 diabetes. In addition, bitter melon extract demonstrated an effect on breast cancer cells in the laboratory.
Investigators in the new study found that bitter melon juice could kill pancreatic cancer cells by interfering with their ability to produce life-giving energy, which then ultimately led to their death. Specifically, they found that bitter melon juice caused “alteration in metabolic events in pancreatic cancer cells” and activated an enzyme “that indicates low energy levels in the cells.”
First the scientists explored the impact of bitter melon extract in cell cultures, then moved on to mouse models of pancreatic cancer. In the mice, who were given bitter melon juice, there was a 60 percent reduced risk of developing pancreatic cancer when compared with controls.
The challenge of pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is an extremely deadly disease, with only 4 percent of patients surviving longer than five years after diagnosis. The treatments currently available are mostly ineffective.
Among the treatments under investigation is a combination treatment that marries gemcitabine with an experimental drug called MRK003. Thus far, this combination therapy has been effective in animals and has triggered a clinical trial in humans.
A study reported in 2011 found that vitamin A can inhibit the growth of pancreatic cancer cells by altering the structure of the non-cancerous cells that surround the malignant ones. The research, conducted by scientists from Barts Cancer Institute, showed that raising the vitamin A level in healthy cells surrounding pancreatic cancer cells inhibited cancer growth.
Researchers also have searched for lifestyle changes that could have an impact on pancreatic cancer. Thus far, some of their findings include the suggestion that fructose may stimulate pancreatic cancer growth and that including more fiber in the diet may reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer.
It’s a long road from bitter melon juice to the sweet success of stopping pancreatic cancer in its tracks. However, co-program leader Rajesh Agarwal, PhD, of the UCCC and professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, noted that researchers are developing drugs to “target cancer cells’ ability to supply themselves with energy, and here we have a naturally occurring compound that may do just that.”
Kaur M et al. Bitter melon juice activates cellular energy sensor AMP-activated protein kinase causing apoptotic death of human pancreatic carcinoma cells. Carcinogenesis 2013. DOI:10.1093/carcin/bgt081
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