Curcumin, anyone?

When the topic comes around to traditional vs. western medicine, I tend to side pretty consistently with the western medicine camp. It’s not that I’m anti-Ayurveda in particular; I just believe in a firm line between science and faith. In my view, one or another medicine cited in Ayurveda might actually be effective, but until it’s been tested in a well-designed double-blind trial, and the results published in a rigorously peer-reviewed journal, I’m generally not interested in using it as anything other than a supplement.

Now, however, the line between eastern “folk remedy” and western science is getting just a bit blurrier, as accredited scientists have recently begun to formally study the effects of things like Turmeric using the scientific method, and blogger Ashutosh has an interesting post at Desipundit summarizing a recent article in Cell on the active ingredient in Turmeric, Curcumin. First, the hype, which is considerable:

Turmeric’s beneficial effects as recorded in Ayurveda are impressive. It is a multitalented molecule, and in its particular case, many of its effects have stood up to the hype. It shows among other things, potential antiinflammatory, anticancer, digestive, respiratory, pro immune system, and cardio and neuroprotective (anti-Alzheimer’s) effects. With such a profile, curcumin would be extremely alluring as a drug, almost seeming like a magic cure. (link)

That’s a lot of potential benefits! Emphasis on “potential”: there are some serious scientific hurdles that have to be jumped before the drug’s effectiveness can be fully understood, or deployed to best possible use, and Ashutosh outlines those as well. Indeed, the fact that Curcumin’s benefits are so generalized might actually be part of the problem:

However, the very varied tricks that curcumin can perform also makes it a somewhat problematic molecule as a drug. A drug usually needs to be very potent, and selective for one particular disease that you are trying to cure. Almost all drugs exert their beneficial effects by either speeding up, or more commonly, inhibiting the activity of a protein that’s involved in a disease. For example, many proteins are perpetually “turned on” in cancer cells leading the cells to incessantly proliferate, and many anticancer drugs work by blocking the activity of these proteins and therefore bringing rampant cell division under control. What we, and pharmaceutical companies are looking for, is a molecule that is potent, selective, and safe. All these qualities are of paramount importance. Potency is important for the very action of the drug, and also so that doses can be small; a weakly potent drug may have to be administered in intolerably large amounts to work. Selectivity is perhaps even more important, because if the drug hits other proteins or targets, it is going to cause unwanted side effects. As we all realise when we take a pill, no drug is completely selective, and there are always side effects, but an effort has to be made to keep them mild and to a minimum. Which naturally brings us to the last point; safety, without which you cannot convince any patient to take a drug, no matter how effective it may be.

In case of curcumin, it shows beneficial effects, but it is not particularly potent for one specific disease. To make it potent for one disease, first of all it would have to be known which protein(s) it blocks or interacts with in the body. Then, knowing the structure of the drug and the protein, chemists can make efforts to modify the structure and increase the potency, and also to reduce the above quoted off-target effects. In case of curcumin therefore, much work needs to be done, before if it can be turned into, say, an effective anticancer drug. In addition, there will need to be extensive animal and finally clinical testing of the modified molecule before it can be approved and marketed. Not surprisingly, the effort required for this whole process has been compared to the expended in putting a man or woman on the moon and getting him or her back. The current estimates are staggering; upto a billion dollars, and 10-12 years, from conception of an idea for a drug (say, curcumin) to finished marketed product, with a success rate of about 5%! No wonder that making drugs is an extremely risky business in all its aspects. This is also the reason why companies are obssesed with patents, because that is the only way for them to recover all this money that has been spent and make a profit to fuel further research.

Anyone have a billion dollars and 10-12 years to invest in deciphering the medical benefits of curcumin?

Googling around, one does find reference to other studies involving Curcmuin, including a UCLA study that suggested Curcumin might help reduce the likelihood of contracting Alzheimer’s Disease (though no full-scale study on humans has been conducted yet). I also came across reference to a Johns Hopkins study suggesting that Turmeric/Curcumin might help reduce the number of precancerous colon polyps. And there may be other serious studies that explore other ways in which circumin might be beneficial (or not); readers, any tips?

Incidentally, I believe the article at Cell Ashutosh mentions is available here (subscription needed).

48 thoughts on “Curcumin, anyone?

  1. Anyone have a billion dollars and 10-12 years to invest in deciphering the medical benefits of circumin?

    Why go to the trouble when you can add a teaspoon to your food (daal, sabzi) everyday. :)

    I’ve gone to Ayurvedic vaidyas in India for certain ailments and have always got excellent results (n=1), much better than using Western medicine for the same ailment. Which is not to say that Western medicine is ineffective. I’d probably use either/or depending on the nature of illness – they both have their pros and cons. Based on my experience, I’m not the one for rejecting Ayurveda outright – it works for me.

  2. This seems a little silly. Turmeric is problematic because it may have “too many” positive effects? I understand why that would make it difficult to study in a “double blind trial” context, but the cynic in me feels like the hesitancy over its potential benefits being broad is because that makes it harder to market. Does this mean we’ll see bottles of turmeric pills next to gingko biloba or St. John’s Wort? :)

    I think JoAT mentioned on the last turmeric thread we had going that she used to drink it with milk and gur (or she still does?) and never gets sick. My nani swears that it keeps your skin/body clean and clear also. Interesting. :)

  3. Well Written. But yes Curcumin has been shown to have anti-alzheimer effects. However it cannot be proved by the highest curcumin using population i.e; the Indian subcontinent, as the average life expectancy of the people is less than that would be conducive for progression and manifestaion of a disease like Alzheimer. So before Alzheimer would set in, the average Indian person would already be dead via pollution, poverty or parasitic infection.

  4. Two questions:

    1. If circumin is developed as a drug (and passes all FDA tests), what is its unique selling advantage over making turmeric a regular part of one’s diet?

    2. Who owns the intellectual property? Will it be abused to prevent people from growing turmeric? [Earlier controversies include neem and basmati rice).

  5. From what I’ve read, India has woken up to biopiracy by corporations, and has been busy publishing the traditional medicinal texts (like properties of neem, turmeric etc.) so that others can’t claim a patent on them. Right on!

  6. I don’t know about Alzheimer’s but I can tell you that if you have a cut or scrape turmeric will stop the bleeding instantly.

  7. Amardeep: An old aurvedic cure for Type II Diabetes as I am told is: Teaspoon every day of [Equal Quantity] Powdered Mixture of Turmeric + Fenugreek + Ganthoda.
    It has helped thousands of folks. I do not know what they call “Ganthoda” in english? It is not Ginger powder but close. Go to your local Patel Brothers – they have it. [Haldi + Methi + Ganthoda]. To improvise on this, to lower Cholesterol level add [1/2 the quantity of above] of Cinnamon. Those sages (e.g. Dhanvantari, Charak, Sushrut, etc.)of ancient India thought about everything – did’nt they? Good Luck.

  8. This seems a little silly. Turmeric is problematic because it may have “too many” positive effects? I understand why that would make it difficult to study in a “double blind trial” context, but the cynic in me feels like the hesitancy over its potential benefits being broad is because that makes it harder to market.

    Maybe to be more precise one should say, simply, “It has too many effects” — it’s not necessarily clear that all of them are going to be positive for everyone. That’s why one does the rigorous science: once we find out how it actually does what it does, we can pinpoint the use of the drug to specific ailments. Until then, we are kind of guessing — which isn’t at all where we want to be with serious diseases like Alzheimer’s or cancer.

  9. It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, and certainly won’t be the last time. If I was a venture capitalist I would invest my money in research about Indian spices straight on, think about it – chilli peppper, cardamom, turmeric, roots of plants we have not even heard of , won’t ONE finding yield to a proper tested and tried drug for a medical condition?

  10. I definitely recommend reading some Ayurveda books that talk about the philosophy behind it.

    So many double blind / peer-reviewed tested medicines turn out later to have numerous “side effects”.

    I’ll pass on the whole exercise.

  11. I am not sure if turmeric can make skin more fair, but I remember getting turmeric rubbed on my legs and arms before a shower or bath in childhood. Looking back, maybe it was a good ” skin exfoliator” , but again, not too sure about that.

  12. More importantly, it makes you fairer too! And I don’t mean more equitable, unbiased or objective ;)

    Make that Fair ‘n’ Lovely, DDiA.

    I have less and less “faith” in Western medicine as she is practiced in an imperfect world, and I think you hit it, Camille, testing is all about marketing now, not so much about science, which I think could develop new methods of analysis after two centuries. Can it be that hard to isolte numerous effects, if the virtues of tomatoes and broccoli can be isolated just fine? Or is it a cultural bias that makes the effects of turmeric/curcumin so hard to measure?

    I do have “faith” that the ancients knew a thing or two, and that people built steadily on that empirically based knowledge. Besides Ayurveda, I find acupuncture more attractive for treating my injury-related ptosis, for instance, where the rather crude blanket remedy proposed by Western treatment methods is surgery that leaves you with a hitched up eyelid that can’t close properly when you’re asleep…

  13. Alls I can say to this is that I treat medicinal science with the same amount of skepticism as I treat food science:

    Scientific reductionism is an undeniably powerful tool, but it can mislead us too, especially when applied to something as complex as, on the one side, a food, and on the other, a human eater. It encourages us to take a mechanistic view of that transaction: put in this nutrient; get out that physiological result. Yet people differ in important ways. Some populations can metabolize sugars better than others; depending on your evolutionary heritage, you may or may not be able to digest the lactose in milk. The specific ecology of your intestines helps determine how efficiently you digest what you eat, so that the same input of 100 calories may yield more or less energy depending on the proportion of Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes living in your gut. There is nothing very machinelike about the human eater, and so to think of food as simply fuel is wrong. [link]
  14. madhuri @ 3: Studies done on Indian rural population were compared with similar aged groups in other countries, and it was found that the incidence of alzheimer’s is very low amongst Indians. So those guys who died out early because of various reason were not part of the study, neither were those who were too young to have developed alzheimer’s.

    Camille: Turmeric is problematic because it may have “too many” positive effects?

    The problem really is evaluating and controlling turmeric’s effects for it to be an effective therapy. Let us say eating small amounts of turmeric regularly over years reduces the incidence of Alzheimer’s. Great for those of us who have years to prepare for the disease, not so good for those who are immediate risk.

    Developing curcumin as a drug will then mean understanding its mode of action and increasing its potency by perhaps developing a curcumin analog.

    The concerns over bio-piracy are also a little overblown. If and when a pharma company comes up with a ‘small molecule drug’ (as it is called in the trade) it will likely be a curcumin analog, not curcumin itself. Other companies (including Indian companies) will be free to develop other analogs and fight it out in the market and courts. But it will not prevent people from using turmeric per se.

    Sorry, no citations, have to run.

  15. No von Mises, thanks for the link to that article. The following quote from it, methinks, hits the nail on the head:

    ”The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, ”is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”

    I’ve observed with amusement as every year, a new food/nutrient is touted as the be-all and cure-all of all that’s ailing the society, all backed by scientific research of course. From all I’ve read about it and when it comes to food and diet, this is where the Ayurveda philosophy resonates most with me.

  16. When the topic comes around to traditional vs. western medicine, I tend to side pretty consistently with the western medicine camp. It’s not that I’m anti-Ayurveda in particular; I just believe in a firm line between science and faith. In my view, one or another medicine cited in Ayurveda might actually be effective, but until it’s been tested in a well-designed double-blind trial, and the results published in a rigorously peer-reviewed journal, I’m generally not interested in using it as anything other than a supplement.

    Me neither. Add to this the problem of quality control. The average “vaidya” doesn’t follow production standards etc, which makes efficacy even more hit-or-miss.

  17. Turmeric is also a great hangover cure. In fact, it is marketed in concentrated pill form in Japan, so you can pop a couple before a night out on town. Me, I just eat a whopping order of saag paneer from the neighboring Taj Shalimar Badalaband.

  18. ”The problem with nutrient-by-nutrient nutrition science,” points out Marion Nestle, the New York University nutritionist, ”is that it takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle

    I’m reading Nestle’s book Food Politics, and she devotes three chapters to the deregulation of the supplement industry. I found a lot of it totally shocking… it’s basically a return to the snake oil days. There is literally almost no regulation on supplements; there are no studies done; it’s a free-for-all. In that sort of context, it really does make more sense just to eat a balanced diet than to down pill after pill of god knows what. (I’m going to have to review the book on my blog; it’s dense but definitely worth reading!)

  19. 15 “Studies done on Indian rural population were compared with similar aged groups in other countries, and it was found that the incidence of alzheimer’s is very low amongst Indians.”

    Yeah, the only diseases that our rural populace fears is hunger & the babudom.

  20. Another thing to consider regarding potency/selectivity is that Ayurvedic medicines is preventative, not curative. A vaidya is never going to tell you “take this and call me in the morning”. He is going to understand the dosha imbalance in your body and going to recommend medicines/diet that is going to bring the doshas in balance and keep them there. The idea is to prevent your body from falling sick. Also, since, vaidyas tend to take a broad look at all symptoms (even though they are unrelated) and prescribe medicines that solve all problems.

    So, by choice, Ayurvedic medicines tend to be less potent because they are meant to correct imbalances as and when they appear; and they tend to be less selective because they are selected to fix multiple symptoms

  21. Yeah, the only diseases that our rural populace fears is hunger & the babudom.

    Right on! Dare I say hunger is a solvable problem :)

    BTW, to continue, did you know there’s now an official Govt of India ‘Grievance’ site where you can lodge complaints? http://darpg-grievance.nic.in/. I’ve been handing it out since yesterday like newbie converts papering the palms of all passerbyes with directions to the Taiwanese church near campus for ‘games and friendship’!!

  22. srah, bringin’ it back to FOOD POLITICS :)

    bc, I understand (hence the comment about making it difficult to evaluate), but at the same time I could grind up eraser shavings and sell it as a supplement for ED.

    I thought tumeric just helped clear skin (not make you fairer)?

  23. my mother thinks that turmeric has ‘cleaning’ properties, and made the yogurt-turmeric-flour mix a lot when i was younger, to be applied to my face and neck, but especially my neck, to ‘take away the dirt’ (my neck was darker than my face, which we have since learned was due to hormonal reasons, not just having a bizarrely ‘dirty’ neck). so perhaps some people do believe it makes you lighter

  24. Thanks, butter chicken (hmm…don’t really say that often). I think that’s the issue with “too many positive effects,” it’s less to do with the marketing side and more to do with understanding its mode of action and efficacy. Most drugs have a particular receptor target upon which they act. With so many effects it means that curcumin probably has moderate effects on a number of targets. Which makes it even harder to treat specific diseases you are interested in treating, testing is harder etc etc. To make it more specific, they wil probably have to develop a more effective analog.

    …hope some of this garbled ranting makes sense :-)

  25. flygirl @ 26: Thanks, butter chicken (hmm…don’t really say that often)

    You should. It gets easier with practice … :-)

    I think it is worth pointing out that you don’t need to raise a billion dollars on day one to start on this project. A prevalent model in the drug discovery space is for small startups or university labs to develop a ‘potential’ drug candidate, and then either sell it to pharma or raise funding to take it through FDA approval. So if someone is interested or serendipitous enough, they could develop an effective analog to curcumin for, probably, less than 25 million USD. Surely that should be possible for some upcoming Indian pharma.

    On another note, those who are anxiously waiting for new therapies to emerge for Alzheimer’s, it is a hot area of research and there are some very promising drug candidates in the pipeline.

  26. On another note, those who are anxiously waiting for new therapies to emerge for Alzheimer’s

    i can’t wait for a cure for… who wants to go play BINGO???

  27. Camille @ 24: bc, I understand (hence the comment about making it difficult to evaluate), but at the same time I could grind up eraser shavings and sell it as a supplement for ED.

    Sorry, Camille, don’t quite get your comment. Need my evening cuppa, methinks.

  28. -A pinch of turmeric + saffron in a glass of hot milk works wonders for a sore throat/cough – especially when consumed before going to sleep at night - Turmeric + besan ( chick pea flour) + fresh cream was the facial of choice in the pre-Jolen days when removing tan and by products of pollution from one’s face was of paramount importance

  29. Indian univs are now publishing papers on Ayurvedic treatments. You can see the links from the Himalaya Drug Company website. The co is a leading maker of ayurvedic medicine. I’ve read many US-based papers on other ayurvedic treatments. See this, for example, on jala-neti.

    And speaking of anecdotes, my High BP and cholesterol was not cured by Prinivil and Pravachol inspite of taking that for over 2 years and I didn’t like the side effects. Finally, I went to an ayurvedic vaidya, here in the Bay Area and she gave a (for want of a better word) holistic treatment – supplements, ayurvedic medicines, diet and lifestyle changes. I’ve never felt better. I’m off the allopathic drugs now. I’m gung ho about ayurveda.

  30. A proper vaidya in the bay area? Would you mind posting up the contact info for her. Thanks.

  31. I’ve been using jala-neti on and off for more than a year now, and in my experience, I’ve found it to be the best method for clearing out sinuses, and getting relief when I have a cold.

  32. I’d like to try using turmeric on my face, but won’t it turn the skin yellow? Anyone know? It does that to my hands when I cook with it.

  33. Butter chicken: Aum Ayurveda 3272,Carol Leaf Court,San Jose,California-95148. 408-274-7283. The vaidya’s name is Priyanka. email: ayurvedaforlife@yahoo.com

    Amit: me too. Others, see the many videos on youtube of people expunding snot through jala neti. :-) Anyway, here’s a commercial. See other videos from the link there. Heaven knows why people would want to upload videos of themselves doing this activity!

  34. I’d like to try using turmeric on my face, but won’t it turn the skin yellow? Anyone know? It does that to my hands when I cook with it.

    sort of. it gives you a ‘healthy glow.’ i’m not sure if this is because turmeric has exfoliating properties or b/c the turmeric-flour-yogurt mix that Runa mentioned actually stains your skin yellow for a while. i still haven’t figured it out.

  35. my mom used to put a mixture of turmeric and something else (i don’t remember what it was) on my nose whenever i had a cold or runny nose. after one or two days, i would always get better. the only part that was embarrassing was that when i’d go to school, my classmates would ask me why my nose was so yellow.

  36. Quizman, Amit,

    I am totally with you on jala-neti. I have horrific year round allergies and I am amazed at the difference it has made. I reccommend it to anyone who has any sinus/allergies issue.

  37. Maybe if the rush wasn’t to develop a pill, this would make more sense. Trying to force all categories of naturally-ocurring compounds into pharmaceutical form is kind of silly. The importance of double-blind trials is great, but it’s not going to tell you much about the drug except whether you can sell it as a treatment for this or that. Pharma companies get pharma-think: “how do we take this and put it in a bottle and make money?”

    This is not always the way to approach a potentially medically-active compound.

    I think a more important question is, how does turmeric act in the human body? What are the potentially active compounds in turmeric? What happens to it when prepared? When injested? Why does it have these myriad properties? Does one particular drug-like property stand out? Are there more than one “primary” properties?

    You answer some of these questions, you move a little further down the road to figuring out what your double-blind experiment will look like. And it won’t cost a billion dollars, either.

  38. my mom used to put a mixture of turmeric and something else (i don’t remember what it was) on my nose whenever i had a cold or runny nose. after one or two days, i would always get better

    How does this work? I’d like to try it for my allergies. Do you put it ON your nose or underneath the nostrils?

  39. turmeric-flour-yogurt mix that Runa mentioned actually stains your skin yellow for a while. i still haven’t figured it

    The trick is to use a little turmeric only – and its really trial and error to figure it out. Once, long years ago, I overdid the turmeric – and I was getting ready for a party and remember that I had to lurk in the shadows and pray that no one asked me to dance :-)

    I think turmeric is a natural bleaching agent – removes impurities etc ,the besan ( chick pea flour) exfoliates and tightens the skin, cream( not yogurt) moisturizes and softens the skin.

  40. turmeric-flour-yogurt mix that Runa mentioned actually stains your skin yellow for a while. i still haven’t figured it

    it also depends on what type of turmeric you use – i use kasturi manjal (i don’t know where they sell it in the states, but i buy it at a stall in madrass that sells pooja saman, so thoe types of places would have it), and i mix it with yogurt, besan, and sandalwood powder, and honey – the staining is very minimal, if any at all. turmeric also stunts facial hair growth…

  41. How long does it take for the turmeric and besan paste to stunt facial hair growth (not that I have taht problem)?

  42. Dear Ms.c It could be hirsutism..I cured mine by seeking the advice of an Ayurvedic Vaidya in the Bay Area. She was wonderful.It kept me healthy over all as well.

  43. Ms. C

    could you please tell me what you did for hirutism you mentioned doing ayurvedic treatment in bay area i am desperate to get rid of this problem please please help me

  44. Beautiful could you please tell me what you did for hirutism you mentioned doing ayurvedic treatment in bay area i am desperate to get rid of this problem please please help me