THURSDAY, April 22, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Can a treatment for cystic fibrosis be sitting on your spice shelf?
A new study has shown that the compound curcumin, which is found in the spice turmeric, dramatically improved lung and digestive function in mice with the disease.
Experts warn, however, against raising expectations too high. "It's not the first and not the last in the sense of panacea treatment for cystic fibrosis," said Dr. Mikhail Kazachkov, a pediatric pulmonologist at Maimonides Medical Center in New York City. "It is promising, but the main thing is not to give fake hope to families, because they have gone through many things before."
Although these findings fall clearly into the "promising-but-preliminary" category, clinical trials are set to start this summer.
"This is not the traditional drug development path, but because it is available as a nutriceutical, we have this opportunity to learn about curcumin in cystic fibrosis patients as we in parallel do the traditional preclinical work," said Dr. Preston Campbell, executive vice president of medical affairs at the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which partially funded the study and will sponsor the upcoming trials. The study appears in the April 23 issue of Science.
People with cystic fibrosis, a life-threatening genetic disease, produce abnormally thick secretions in the lungs and the gastrointestinal tract that cause chronic infections and trouble digesting and absorbing nutrients. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation puts the median age of survival for people with the disease in the mid-30s.
"There's no cure, and it's a very complicated disease to live with," said Dr. Marie Egan, lead author of the study and associate professor of pediatrics and cellular and molecular physiology at Yale University School of Medicine.
In a healthy person, secretions in the lung act as a sort of spider web to catch inhaled particles and move them up through the airways to be expelled via a sneeze or cough, explained Dr. Michael Caplan, senior author of the study and a professor of cellular and molecular physiology at Yale. In the GI tract, the mucus makes sure that food particles don't pierce the intestine. The body secretes salt water to keep the mucus fluid.
Most people with cystic fibrosis have a mutation in the DeltaF508 gene, which prevents the salt water from being secreted. In these cases, the necessary protein gets made but it is abnormally shaped. As a result, the cell's "quality control mechanism" prevents the protein from leaving the cell and doing its job.
"It's trapped inside," Caplan said, who likens the whole process to the anonymous individuals who inspect clothing for defects before they leave the factory. "The cell has chaperones that act as inspectors to decide if the proteins have formed correctly or not, and, if they haven't, hold the proteins inside," he explained.
Years ago, scientists found a compound that turned off the overeager inspector, but the compound was toxic. Since then, the search has been on for a safe compound that could serve the same function.
The compound is widely available as a nutritional supplement and, according to Campbell, has also been used in clinical trials for colon cancer and arthritis.
Feeding curcumin to mice with the DeltaF508 mutation basically corrected the malfunction in the cells. "To make a very long story short, what we think we've done is come up with a drug or compound that puts a blindfold over the inspector," Caplan said.
"There was both a physiologic correction and a survival benefit when curcumin was used orally," Campbell added.
This is a far cry from an actual treatment, however.
"It's a huge leap from mice to humans," Egan pointed out. "We know that this works for mice, but what happens in people is not clear... Mice metabolize or break down the compound differently than humans do, so we can't make that leap."
"We have no idea whether this will work, but we have a pretty good idea that no one is going to get hurt," Caplan added.
The week was a big one for "medical spices." Researchers in Italy and New York announced that curcumin activated an enzyme that prevents oxidation in the brain, raising the possibility that it could also be used in the fight against Alzheimer's disease.