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Curcumin Temporarily Slows Pancreatic Cancer

CancerWise - September 2008

By Darcy De Leon

Curcumin, a compound in the spice turmeric, temporarily stopped advanced pancreatic cancer growth in two patients and substantially reduced the size of a tumor in another patient, according to a small study published July 15 in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

Significance of results

In the Phase II M. D. Anderson study of 25 patients, curcumin was given on its own without chemotherapy.

“The effects of curcumin were encouraging,” says the study’s principal investigator, Razelle Kurzrock, M.D., chair of M. D. Anderson’s Department of Investigational Cancer Therapeutics (Phase I clinical trial program). “It showed activity in patients, and there were no side effects.”

A concern before starting the study was that curcumin normally is poorly absorbed, meaning that only low levels get into the bloodstream after the capsule form has been taken by mouth.

“Therefore, the fact that low levels of curcumin resulted in benefits in the study, even in a small number of patients, suggests that if we could find a better way to administer curcumin and get it to the tumor, we could see a greater response,” Kurzrock says.

The fact that curcumin had any effect on patients with pancreatic cancer, which is difficult to treat successfully, is significant to Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics.

“The results are important,” says Aggarwal, a laboratory scientist who has studied curcumin as a potential cancer-fighting agent in cancer cells and mice for nearly 20 years.

Research methods

Patients received 8 grams of curcumin by mouth every day for two months. Maintenance therapy was continued at the same dose and schedule until the disease progressed.

Primary results

Twenty-five patients were reported in the paper.

Of those patients, curcumin resulted in:

Prolonged stable disease: Two patients temporarily experienced no significant tumor growth; one for eight months and another patient for just over 2.5 years (an additional 12 months after the study was compiled for publication).

Tumor regression: One patient experienced a decrease in tumor size of 73%, although the tumor grew back soon afterward.

“Interestingly, at the time of progression, the lesions that had shrunk remained small, but other lesions grew larger,” according to the study.

“That suggests that a resistant clone of cancer cells emerged, which is a real problem in treating cancer,” Kurzrock says.

In addition, no side effects were observed in patients.


Curcumin is a substance that comes from the root-bearing Curcuma longa plant, a member of the ginger family. Curcumin is an ingredient in turmeric, a spice used in foods such as curry.

Curcumin has been studied in numerous research studies and has been found to contain potential anti-tumor abilities.

Curcumin is used in India as a:

  • Food preservative
  • Coloring agent for food and textiles
  • Spice (2% to 5% of turmeric is curcumin)
  • Folk medicine to:
    • Cleanse the body
    • Heal wounds
    • Prevent wrinkles
    • Suppress inflammation

Knowledge of curcumin’s anti-inflammatory properties and the growing realization that cancer can result from inflammation has spurred mounting interest in the spice, Aggarwal says.

The study was conceived and developed through a collaboration among Kurzrock, who chairs a department devoted to studies with new drugs; James Abbruzzese, M.D., chair of M. D. Anderson's Department of Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology and an expert in pancreatic cancer; and Aggarwal.

Their work demonstrated that in laboratory and animal studies, curcumin was especially potent against pancreatic cancer.

What’s next?

Researchers are seeking funding for additional clinical trials using curcumin.

“We plan to study curcumin together with other anti-cancer drugs, since combined therapy is likely to enhance results,” Kurzrock says. “In addition, we are developing a liposomal form of curcumin (curcumin packed within a fat-type capsule) that can be taken orally and travel directly through the bloodstream. Hopefully, this form will improve the ability of curcumin to reach the tumor.”

M. D. Anderson resources:

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center