Common Spice May Protect Skin During Radiation Therapy for Cancer

October 07, 2002

Cancer researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have found that curcumin, a substance in curry long believed to have health benefits, seems to protect skin during radiation therapy. Doctors say that while further study is needed, cancer patients could consider eating foods with curry during their radiation treatment.

Curcumin, the substance that gives turmeric its yellow color, is a natural anti-inflammatory compound and scientists have already shown that it can suppress tumor blood vessel growth. This process, called anti-angiogenesis, can strangle tumors.

Now, James P. Wilmot Cancer Center researchers have discovered through a study of mice that curcumin may protect skin from the burns and blisters that often occur during radiation treatment.

“This is significant because skin damage is a real problem for patients undergoing radiation to treat their tumors. If a non-toxic, natural substance can help prevent this damage and enhance the effectiveness of our radiation, that’s a winning situation,” said Paul Okunieff , M.D., chief of radiation oncology at the Wilmot Cancer Center. Scientists presented results of the pilot study at the 44th annual meeting of the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology on Monday, Oct. 7, in New Orleans.

The team of researchers, led by Ivan Ding, M.D., assistant professor of radiation oncology, studied the impact of various doses of curcumin on skin protection in mice given radiation therapy. The difference in skin damage was dramatic.

“There were far fewer blisters or burns on the mice who had been given curcumin,” Ding said.

In the study, 200 mice were given three different doses of curcumin for five to seven days. On the fifth day, mice were given a single dose of radiation and scientists waited 20 days to assess skin damage. The mice who received curcumin had minimal skin damage caused by radiation.

Scientists also found the substance suppresses development of new cells in the area of tumor, thus furthering the effectiveness of radiation. While doctors are not ready to say that curcumin is the answer to preventing skin damage, researchers believe the results demonstrate the need for more extensive study.

Researchers plan further scrutiny of curcumin and combinations with other anti-inflammatory compounds to determine what could be the best way to prevent skin damage, Ding said.

“Nearly all cancer patients who get radiation treatment experience some form of skin damage – from mild sunburn all the way to blisters – that is painful for many,” Okunieff said. “If we can find a simple way to help prevent that, it would make treatment a bit easier.”

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