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Study Shows Curcumin Blocks the Metastasis of Colon Cancer by a Novel Mechanism

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Key Points

  • The active part of the cortactin protein, pTyr421, is hyperactivated in colon cancer due to excessive phosphorylation.
  • Treating human colon cancer cells with curcumin activated the PTPN1 enzyme, which dephosphorylated cortactin, thus reducing cancer cell migration.

A team of researchers led by the University of Arizona Steele Children’s Research Center discovered that curcumin—the bioactive molecule derived from the spice turmeric—blocks the protein cortactin in colon cancer. Cortactin, a protein essential for cell movement, is frequently overexpressed in cancer, thus facilitating cancer cell metastasis. The findings by Radhakrishnan et al were published in PLOS ONE.

Turmeric is part of the ginger family and has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years to treat colds, inflammation, arthritis, and many other ailments, including cancer. Previous studies have suggested that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, has a chemopreventive effect.

“What’s novel about our research is that our study identified one of the mechanisms by which curcumin can prevent cancer cell metastasis in colon cancer,” said co-investigator Fayez K. Ghisan, MD, Head of the University of Arizona Department of Pediatrics and Director of the Steele Children’s Research Center.

Study Details

The research team discovered that the active part of the cortactin protein, known as Phopsho Tyrosine 421 (pTyr421), is hyperactivated in malignant tumors of the colon due to excessive phosphorylation, which has been linked with cancer aggressiveness.

When the researchers treated human colon cancer cells with curcumin, they discovered that curcumin turns off the active form of cortactin. “When cortactin is turned off, cancer cells lose the ability to move and can’t metastasize to other parts of the body,” explained co-investigator Vijay Radhakrishnan, PhD, Assistant Scientist in the Department of Pediatrics.

More specifically, curcumin “turned-off” cortactin by activating the PTPN1 enzyme, which acts as a phosphatase to remove phosphate groups from cortactin. Dephosphorylating cortactin correlated with reduced ability of colon cancer cells to migrate. “This suggests that curcumin reduces cancer cells’ ability to … metastasize,” said Pawel Kiela, DVM, PhD, Associate Professor in the Department of Pediatrics.

Potential for New Chemopreventive Agents

“By identifying the mechanism of action—that curcumin activates the enzyme PTPN1, which then ‘turns off’ the active component of cortactin pTyr421, we believe that chemopreventive drugs can be developed to target cortactin in cancer cells to prevent the cancer from metastasizing,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan.

“Treatments aimed at the suppression of cancer metastasis remain an urgent therapeutic need,” said Dr. Ghishan. “Our findings have laid the foundation for future research to develop treatments using curcumin to prevent cancer’s deadly spread to other organs.”

Dr Kiela is the corresponding author for the PLOS ONE article.

The study was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The content in this post has not been reviewed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology, Inc. (ASCO®) and does not necessarily reflect the ideas and opinions of ASCO®.


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