The number may seem small, but the impact promises to be significant. At a health clinic in the Sunderbans, West Bengal, Najmun Nahar and a team from Kolkata’s Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute (CNCI), are beginning the world’s first curcumin trial to fight cervical cancer, mostly caused by HPV.
What is HPV?
The human papilloma virus (HPV), an umbrella term for more than 100 viruses found till now, is the most common cause of cervical cancer. It is mostly transmitted through sexual contact. “HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the world,” observes P.S. Basu of CNCI. It seems to affect young people more. A monogamous woman may pick it up from an infected partner. “Unfortunately,” points out Dr Basu, “there is no treatment for the HPV infection till date.” The good news is that most HPV infections are overtaken by the body’s immune system. The bad news is that some cannot fight back.
There are fears that HPV may cause not just cervical cancer but also cancers of the breast and mouth. The Cancer Atlas also mentions respiratory cancers caused by HPV.
Women are most at risk
Dr Basu says: “About 1 lakh women die of cervical cancer in India, every year. Yet, it is preventable at the pre-cancerous stage.” At that stage, it gives doctors a lead of about 10 years before the cancer sets in.
The researchers are trying to find out if curcumin works in fighting HPV. It will be available as a vaginal tablet or cream.
The pilot project of a clinical trial of curcumin began in September 2007 under the aegis of the department of biotechnology (DBT). The other projects are being conducted by the Institute of Cytology and Preventive Oncology (ICPO), Noida, and the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai.
What curcumin does
Curcumin is the main extract of the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa) and is not patented. Bindu Dey of DBT explains, “Curcumin is a potent anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory component.” DBT picked up this compound for clinical testing in squamous cells carcinoma, (a form of skin cancer) after a large number of in-vitro (laboratory) and in-vivo (in a living organism) studies.
Although turmeric has been described in Ayurveda as a treatment for inflammatory diseases, curcumin, a yellow pigment in turmeric, has many pluses. It binds to a variety of proteins to inhibit the activity of various enzymes. It has anti-biotic properties and has been found effective against HPV. It scavenges for free radicals, and stalls DNA damage. Dr Basu says: “HPV is a local infection. So a locally applied agent may be able to clear the virus.”
The flip side
In 2005, S. Kawanishi, S. Oikawa and M. Murata of the department of environmental and molecular medicine, Japan, noted that curcumin is a “double-edged sword”. While it does have anti-cancer properties, they says it can also be carcinogenic as it “exerted pro-oxidant properties after metabolic activation”. Bhudev Das, director of ICPO since 2004, disagrees. DBT is just as convinced. “It is protective against any cancer,” says Dr Das. “There are thousands of anti-oxidant herbal agents, but most are in a crude form. Curcumin is the only product that is marketed in the purified form. So it is unlikely to vary.”
A new chapter?
“Our hypothesis is that it would clear women of HPV infections. If it is proven to be so, it (curcumin) has the potential of being the first therapeutic molecule against HPV infection,” says Dr Dey of DBT. Curcumin may not be available over the counter for another few years. But once it is, it promises to change things.