Spice helps to stop the spread of breast cancer
Texas-based researchers found that curcumin, the main ingredient of turmeric, inhibits the spread of breast cancer into the lungs and improves the effectiveness of current remedies.
While they stressed that their research - which was carried out in mice - was at an early stage, the lead scientist said he was "excited" about the implications.
Other experts said the "potentially very important" study had led to a significant advance in understanding of the effects of curcumin.
The singer Kylie Minogue, who is being treated for breast cancer, has been drinking smoothies made from a range of fruits, vegetables and spices, including turmeric, in the hope it will help her.
Bharat Aggarwal, professor of cancer medicine at Texas University, said: "We are excited about the study results and the possible implications for taking the findings into the clinic in the next few years.
"At this time, advanced breast cancer is a difficult foe to fight with few proven treatments available after surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy."
The study, which was due to be published in today's issue of the journal Clinical Cancer Research, reports that the spice appears to shut down a protein active in the spread of breast cancer.
The non-toxic, natural curcumin repelled progression of the disease to the lungs and also appeared to reverse a "side-effect" of a commonly prescribed chemotherapy whose prolonged use may actually help to spread the disease.
Curcumin breaks down the dose, making the therapy less toxic, but the drug stays just as powerful in fighting cancer.
Researchers studied 60 mice with breast cancer. Among a control group who were not treated, 96 per cent went on to develop visible signs of lung cancer, while treatment with the chemotherapy drug Taxol "modestly reduced" the incidence.
But those given curcumin alone or curcumin plus Taxol had far fewer signs of the disease. Microscopic evidence of lung cancer was found in just 28 per cent of mice given both and there were no visible signs of the disease at all.
Dr Mark Matfield, scientific consultant for the St Andrews-based Association for International Cancer Research, said: "We have known for some time that curcumin has anti-cancer effects, but this study has really advanced our understanding of exactly how this works. The finding that curcumin can decrease the spread of cancer when it is treated with Taxol is really interesting and potentially very important.
"However, as the authors of this study pointed out, these are only preliminary findings. The crucial next stage is to confirm these findings in patients suffering from lung cancer."
Dr Julie Sharp, senior cancer information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "A number of laboratory studies have suggested that curcumin could be used to treat and even prevent some types of cancer. But, as yet there is no evidence confirming this in humans. These findings will need to be followed up with clinical trials in humans."
Hotly tipped as healthy
CURRIES and other kinds of Indian food have long been suspected of having anti-cancer properties.
The main reason is that, in many parts of the sub-continent, there are much lower rates of several types of cancers affecting the gut.
Curcumin is a member of the ginger family and is extracted from the root of the curcuma longa plant.
It is widely prescribed in Indian medicine for liver disorders, rheumatism, diabetic wounds, a runny nose, coughs and sinusitis.
Traditional Chinese medicine also uses it for abdominal pain.