A new study suggests that an ingredient in red chili pepper has cancer-fighting properties that prevent or slow the growth of pancreatic cancer tumors implanted in mice.
The study found that capsaicin, the “hot” ingredient in red chili pepper, caused pancreatic cancer cells to die through a process called apoptosis. Apoptosis, the body’s normal method of disposing of damaged, unwanted or unneeded cells, is often defective in cancer cells, causing them to continue to thrive.
“In our study, we discovered that capsaicin fed orally to mice with human pancreatic tumors was an extremely effective inhibitor of the cancer process, inducing apoptosis in cancer cells,” said Sanjay K. Srivastava, Ph.D., lead investigator and assistant professor, department of pharmacology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “Capsaicin triggered the cancerous cells to die off and significantly reduced the size of the tumors.”
Dr. Srivastava and colleagues fed mice grafted with human pancreatic tumors different amounts of capsaicin for five days per week or three days per week according to their weight, then compared tumor size and levels of apoptotic proteins in the tumors to a control group of mice that received normal saline only. They found that the mice that received capsaicin had increased levels of proteins associated with apoptosis and significantly smaller tumor sizes than the control group. Tumors treated with capsaicin were half the size of tumors in non-treated mice. Further testing revealed that capsaicin disrupted the mitochondrial function, which resulted in the release of several apoptotic proteins, but that it did not negatively affect normal pancreatic cells.
“Our results demonstrate that capsaicin is a potent anticancer agent, induces apoptosis in cancer cells and produces no significant damage to normal pancreatic cells, indicating its potential use as a novel agent for the prevention and treatment of pancreatic cancer,” said Dr. Srivastava.
Pancreatic cancer is the fifth-leading cause of cancer death in the United States and is one of the most aggressive cancers, with an extremely poor prognosis.
Revision date: June 22, 2011
Last revised: by Andrew G. Epstein, M.D.