Compound that makes peppers hot could help kill cancer cells

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Stephen Feller


The compound in chili peppers that makes them hot, capsaicin, has been known to kill prostate cancer cells for about a decade. Researchers have moved closer to a way of using the molecule in cancer treatment by figuring out how it works, they report in a new study.

Capsaicin is already employed medically in pain relief creams, such as Capzasin and Theragen, used for arthritis, backaches and strains. A recent study in China found it can lower the risk of death from cancer, heart and respiratory diseases.

In 2006, a study found that capsaicin can cause prostate cancer cells in mice to die while leaving healthy cells alone. It required, however, giving the mice a dose of the molecule equivalent to a 200-pound-man eating three to eight habanero peppers three times a week.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras found in a new study, published in The Journal of Physical Chemistry, that the molecule binds to the surface of cancer cells and affects the membrane that surrounds and protects it.

By detecting how the molecule interacts with cell membranes, they hope to find better ways of delivering it when attempting to kill cancer cells.

“The study showed that capsaicin lodges in the membranes near the surface,” the researchers said in a press release. “Add enough of it, and the capsaicin essentially causes the membranes to come apart. With additional research, this insight could help lead to novel tools against cancer or other conditions.”