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Spicy Chilis May Contain Secret To Stopping Skin Cancers

Spicy Chilis May Contain Secret To Stopping Skin Cancers
Lab Studies Find Capsaicin Interferes With Cell's Ability To Process Oxygen
M. D. Anderson News Release 09/04/02

The pungent component that gives spicy chili peppers their punch may be able to knock out skin cancers as well, reports a team of researchers at The University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Drs. Reuben Lotan and Numsen Hail in the department of Thoracic, Head and Neck Medical Oncology report in today's issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that exposing skin cancer cells to the chemical capsaicin ("cap-say-i-sin"), which gives chili peppers their spicy flavor, caused the cells to stop growing and eventually die. The researchers reported that capsaicin and a related compound derived from a tree interfere with the cancer cells' ability to use oxygen.  The oxygen-deficient cells then commit cellular suicide, called apoptosis.

"It is important to bear in mind that this study was done in the laboratory, the initial step in a long process to bring a product to the patient," Dr. Lotan said. "The findings from this research and other previous studies are encouraging, and offer a sound foundation for exploring clinical and preventive applications with capsaicin, particularly in skin cancer."

The natural product capsaicin is currently used in creams and ointments to relieve pain and inflammation.

Scientists studying how the chemical works noticed that it is capable of inhibiting cancer cells, but few studies had addressed how it could do that. Dr. Lotan studied capsaicin's effects on squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. The scientists applied the chemical for 30 minutes and then measured its ability to use oxygen, particularly in the mitochondria, the cell's powerhouse and the site inside the cell where oxygen is used to help produce energy. When they examined the cancer cell's response, they determined that the cells had stopped growing and had entered into a cycle that leads to death.

Dr. Lotan points out that the concentration of capsaicin that was effective in killing skin cancer cells is eight to 25 times lower than that now used in topical creams, making it a good candidate for use in a cream or patch to prevent or treat skin cancer.

In an accompanying review, Dr. Young-Joan Surh of Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea, calls the work "an excellent study" that provides important insights into how capsaicin causes cell death.

The study was funded in part by grants from the National Cancer Institute.


© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center