A research team led by PD Dr. Beatrice Bachmeier at LMU Munich has been studying the mode of action of a natural product that inhibits the formation of metastases.
The compound is found in turmeric, a plant that has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and is a major ingredient of curry.
Bachmeier's research centres on curcumin, the polyphenol responsible for the characteristic colour of curry.
Curcumin is well tolerated and is therefore, in principle, suitable both for prophylactic use and also for the suppression of metastases in cases where an established tumour is already present.
In a previous study Bachmeier and her colleagues had demonstrated that the substance reduces statistically significantly the formation of lung metastases in an animal model of advanced breast cancer.
The new study was designed to investigate the efficacy of curcumin in the prevention of prostate cancer metastases, and to determine the agent's mechanism of action.
The researchers first examined the molecular processes that are abnormally regulated in prostate carcinoma cells. Breast and prostate cancers are often associated with latent or chronic inflammatory reactions, and in both cases, the tumour cells were found to produce pro-inflammatory immunomodulators including the cytokines CXCL1 und CXCL2.
The researchers went on to show that curcumin specifically decreases the expression of these two proteins, and in a mouse model, this effect correlated with a decline in the incidence of metastases.
"Due to the action of curcumin, the tumour cells synthesize smaller amounts of cytokines that promote metastasis," Bachmeier said.
"As a consequence, the frequency of metastasis formation in the lungs is significantly reduced, in animals with breast cancer, as we showed previously, or carcinoma of the prostate, as demonstrated in our new study," she said.
Bachmeier therefore believes that curcumin may be useful in the prevention of breast and prostate cancers - which are both linked to inflammation - and in reducing their metastatic potential.
"This does not mean that the compound should be seen as a replacement for conventional therapies. However, it could play a positive role in primary prevention - before a full-blown tumour arises - or help to avert formation of metastases. In this context the fact that the substance is well tolerated is very important, because one can safely recommend it to individuals who have an increased tumour risk," she added.
The study has been published online in Carcinogenesis.