Candy canes, sugarplums or licorice for Christmas? Only one might stop cancer

December 22, 2003

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J. -A novel molecule extracted from licorice root has the ability to stop some cancers dead in their tracks, according to a collaborative research study conducted at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Mohamed Rafi, assistant professor in the department of food science at Rutgers' Cook College, discovered the new molecule, ß-hydroxy-DHP (BHP), in common dietary supplements made from licorice root, a natural remedy with curative powers recognized for millennia. Rafi tested the compound in the laboratory on tissues taken from prostate and breast cancer tumors.

"We were able to conclusively demonstrate for the first time that BHP stopped the growth of cancer cells in prostate and breast cancers," Rafi said. Prostate and breast cancers are the leading cancers affecting men and women respectively, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

BHP belongs to a class of organic chemicals known as polyphenols that includes the potential anticancer compounds found in green tea and wine.

"The precision with which ß-hydroxy-DHP acts in treating these cancers offers new hope for more effective therapies," said Rafi. Standard chemotherapy kills normal cells along with cancer cells, causing side effects such as hair loss, nausea and reduced immunities.

BHP, a small, highly specific molecule, focuses precisely on cancer cells. It works by deactivating a protein associated with tumor cells known to promote the rampant cell growth characteristic of cancer.

The paper reporting this discovery was first published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry by Rafi and his colleagues. The team's findings have gained new prominence since the National Institutes of Health included it in its Annual Bibliography of Significant Advances in Dietary Supplement Research in October 2002. Collaborators in this research included other scientists at Rutgers' Cook College and Center for Advanced Food Technology, as well as researchers at the Environmental and Occupational Health Science Institute, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

The ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and Hindus recognized the natural medicinal qualities of licorice. Tutankhamen was even buried with licorice root. Today, the root is a botanical ingredient in modern Chinese medicines used to manage cancers. While some previous scientific studies confirmed the wisdom of the ancients, the actual anticancer mechanisms remained a mystery until Rafi's discovery.

"While licorice root is currently in clinical trials, we still need to isolate, synthesize and clinically test the BHP compound," Rafi says. "There is still a lot more to do both in the laboratory with animal models and in clinical trials on humans."

Rutgers University

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