THURSDAY, March 3, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- New research suggests that a compound derived from the same plant that produces licorice may stem one of the cancers that strikes people with AIDS.
The findings are preliminary, and there's no evidence that chewing licorice sticks at the movie theater will work. But the compound, known as glycyrrhizic acid, does appear to shrink the most fatal tumors spawned by a disease known as Kaposi's sarcoma.
"This is a promising start for a new approach to treatment," said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases researcher Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, who wrote a commentary that accompanied a study about the findings.
Licorice root has been used for medical purposes for centuries. Over the past several years, researchers have tried to unravel the root's powers; studies have suggested it could treat conditions as different as memory loss and SARS.
In the new study, researchers used glycyrrhizic acid to treat human cells infected with a herpes virus that causes Kaposi's sarcoma. Their findings appear in the March 1 issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The acid appears to alert the infected cells about danger, said study co-author Ornella Flore, an assistant professor of microbiology at New York University. "The cell immediately realizes that it's infected, that something is wrong, and kills itself through [a process known as] programmed cell death."
The acid treatment "doesn't do anything to the cells which aren't infected. It's just killing the cells that have the virus," she added.
If the treatment survives future testing, it could help patients with potentially fatal Kaposi's sarcoma tumors, Cohen said.
While some elderly men in the Mediterranean region develop Kaposi's sarcoma, the condition was fairly obscure until the AIDS epidemic began. AIDS devastates the immune system, and infected people began succumbing to unusual diseases, including Kaposi's sarcoma.
The condition is most notorious for the disfiguring facial lesions that some patients develop. But Kaposi's sarcoma is more than just a nuisance: it's routinely fatal if tumors appear in the lungs and gastrointestinal system.
In the most severe cases, "the median survival time for patients with chemotherapy and radiation is six to 12 months," Cohen said. "Newer approaches to therapy are needed, and this is a completely new, more targeted approach."
More questions need to be answered, however. "A lot more research would need to be done before it could be used clinically," Cohen said.
According to Cohen, it's not clear if the compound produced when licorice is eaten will serve as an adequate treatment. If not, any drug may have to be given as an injection.
To learn more about Kaposi's sarcoma, visit the American Cancer Society.