The NCI estimates that 1.37 million new cases of cancer (all types) will be diagnosed in the United States in 2005, and that that the disease will cause 0.57 million deaths. Each year cancer costs the nation $60 billion in direct medical costs each year, plus an additional $120 billion in lost productivity.
Physicians are unlikely to advocate the use of natural products in place of mainstream therapies, but concrete scientific evidence of their benefits may give them credence as a complementary approach.
Over the next four years, researchers at Wake Forest will study the potential of propolis, a resinous substance collected by bees from the bark and leaves of trees and plants that has a history of use in folk medicine, and the food spice turmeric, to enhance the effects of radiation therapy.
The active component in propolis is caffeic acid phenethyl ester (CAPE), which studies have shown can protect mice against radiation induced inflammation and skin damage, and rats against certain forms of heart muscle damage following chemotherapy treatment.
A diet rich in curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, has been linked to a lower population incidence of colon cancer. The NCI has been investigating curcumin as an anti-cancer agent since 1998 and studies into its potential to help prevent cancer are currently underway.
"A very interesting property of these compounds is that they have been shown to cause cell death in tumor cells but not in normal cells," said lead investigator Dr Costas Koumenis, assistant professor of radiation oncology at Wake Forest Baptist, whose laboratory has already carried out experiments in cell cultures and animal tumors demonstrating this effect.
Koumenis' will investigate the ability of CAPE and curcumin to boost the effects of enhance radiation therapy for gliomas (brain tumors), and unravel how they may make tumor cells more sensitive to radiation, while protecting normal tissue.
The NCI grant follows the announcement last month that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and the Office of Dietary Supplements are funding research into the properties of certain botanicals at five university centers across the US over the next five years.
A total of $6.75 has been pledged for the first year of the program, and projects include a Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center Research Center study into the potential role of turmeric, echinacea, astralgus and maitake in therapy for cancer and infectious diseases.