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Columbia Missourian

MU researchers link spice to reduced risk of breast cancer

By James Ostler
July 15, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — MU researchers have found that curcumin, an Indian spice derived from the turmeric root, could potentially reduce the risk of breast cancer in women undergoing hormone replacement therapy.

Postmenopausal women typically undergo hormone replacement therapy in order to provide their bodies with sufficient levels of estrogen and progesterone, which decline over time.

The synthetic progesterone used in hormone replacement therapy, progestin, increases the risk of breast cancer by 26 percent, according to the Women's Health Initiative. However, without the use of progestin in hormone replacement therapy, women are at an increased risk to develop uterine cancer.

This has left women undergoing hormone replacement therapy in a dire bind — risk contracting breast cancer through the use of progestin, or forgo the hormone and risk developing uterine cancer.

Approximately 40,00 women die every year from breast cancer, and 200,000 new cases are reported each year. There are six million women in the United States that use hormone replacement therapy to treat menopause, said Salman Hyder, professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the study.

Researchers think the discovery, announced Monday, of curcumin's effects on progestin-accelerated tumors in animal models could make the decision to undergo hormone replacement therapy a little easier.

The study showed that by blocking the production of a molecule called VEGF, which supplies blood to tumors that lead to breast cancer, curcumin could limit the production of breast cancer cells brought on by progestin intake.

Hyder hopes to confront the paradox of cancer risk facing women undergoing hormone replacement therapy.

"Women who take estrogen and progestin develop more tumors than those who just take estrogen," Hyder said. "But doctors (practicing hormone replacement therapy) must give them progestin." 

So Hyder and a team of MU researchers, who first published a study in 2006 about progestin's tumor-accelerating effects, sought to find a way to make progestin safer for women exposed to hormone replacement therapy. 

"We found that progestin can cause the release of VEGF," Hyder said. "But curcumin is blocking the production of VEGF, causing delay in tumor appearance."

Hyder said the next step in determining the effectiveness of curcumin to protect women from breast cancer is to conduct human clinical trials. The study released Monday was conducted on rats.