Breakthrough research from the UAE highlights how spices can effectively combat cancer and other killer diseases. Rob Kemp reports
The latest conflict between alternative and conventional medicine looks set to take place over the dinner table, as a new batch of health research suggests that common food spices may be key to providing cures or preventing the onset of diseases such as cancer.
Nutritionists, complementary medicine advocates and health food promoters have, for many years, lauded the health properties of natural food flavourings extracted from herbs and spices such as cinnamon and horseradish, especially for their ability to alleviate problems such as digestive tract conditions.
While many mainstream health practitioners have accepted the role nature's medicine chest has contributed to the development of modern drugs, scepticism remains about the true worth of "herbal" medicines. But now, the publication of a new Emirates Foundation-funded study from the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain - which shows that the spice saffron could help combat the growth of cancer cells - looks set to take the debate to a whole new level.
Trials carried out on rats induced with liver cancer revealed that the introduction of saffron extract into the diet - already known in medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties - prompted the death of cancerous cells and stopped the spread of the disease within the animals.
Saffron was found to reduce compounds linked to liver damage and oxidative stress - which can distort cell growth and cause cancers to spread. The research, which appeared in the latest issue of the medical journal Hepatology and featured in multiple international news outlets including Science News and Wiley International Health News, highlights how the antioxidant properties of the popular food flavouring can effectively boost the body's immune defences.
"The fact that a potent antioxidant like saffron exerts a significant chemopreventive effect against liver cancer makes us very optimistic for similar anti-cancer roles in humans," the study's lead researcher Professor Amr Amin, of the university's biology department, told The National. "However, the exact mechanism of the anticancer effect of saffron is unclear."
The new research from the UAE follows several recent studies that have also cited spices as being effective in the war on infectious diseases. Most recently, data from the University of Beira Interior in Portugal has shown how oil extracted from coriander seeds can kill bacteria related to food-borne diseases, such as E coli.
Like saffron, coriander oil has been used for centuries as an alternative medicine. People suffering from cramp, fungal infections and nausea, among others ailments, have been told to get more coriander into their diet to relieve the symptoms.
Now its powers as an antibacterial agent - with the ability to beat off bugs such as E coli, salmonella and MRSA - are being investigated too, after the Portuguese research was published in the August edition of the Journal of Medical Microbiology.
"Coriander disrupts the barrier between the cell and its environment and inhibits essential processes including respiration, which ultimately leads to the death of the bacterial cell," explained the researcher Fernanda Domingues. The coriander oil showed significant antibacterial activity against 12 different types of deadly bacteria.
Last October, researchers from Saint Louis University in the US identified curcumin - a chemical contained in the curry spice turmeric - as showing promise in treating liver damage from an advanced form of an obesity-related disease known as "fatty liver disease".
The advice from experts such as Amin is to make herbs and spices key components of a healthy diet. And it's an area of medicine that's gathering momentum, too.
"The escalating prevalence of chronic diseases worldwide and the corresponding rise in healthcare costs is propelling interest among researchers and the public for multiple health benefits related to these food items," says Amin. "A growing body of evidence points to herbs and spices as minor dietary constituents with multiple anti-cancer characteristics."
Amin also cites curcumin as having been shown to prevent diabetic cardiovascular complications, to help to reduce dangerous levels of cholesterol in the body and as having links to a lower incidence of colon cancer.
The breakthrough surrounding saffron looks set to boost the focus on spice-based remedies both here in the UAE and worldwide. "We plan to test this spice in liver cancer patients and are hoping to receive a sizeable financial support that would enable us to benefit not only the great people of the UAE but all mankind as well," explains Amin. "I have already received many emails from US liver cancer patients requesting more information to try saffron as a treatment."