Curcumin is one of many components that are found in turmeric. This spice has been used throughout history in cooking, dyes, religious ceremonies and medical treatments. In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is used in the treatment of a range of conditions from baldness to Alzheimer’s disease. In cosmetics, the compounds called tetrahydrocurcuminoids (THC) gives turmeric extract whitening properties. It was believed that the medicinal properties of turmeric came from curcumin, but a recently published critical review of the compound suggests that one of the other compounds found in turmeric is actually responsible for its therapeutic benefits.
Curcumin refers one of three very closely related molecules in the curcuminoid family, and it is one of over a dozen compounds found in turmeric. This means that researchers may have been ascribing positive biological effects to the wrong molecule or compound. Curcumin is one of many substances that chemists refer to as PAINS: Pan-Assay Interference Compounds. Drug screens assess whether a compound might be the starting point for a drug by determining if it attaches to the binding site of specific proteins associated with a disease. Some compounds (like curcumin) give false signals of specific activity because they naturally fluoresce, disrupt cell membranes, degrade into other compounds with different properties, or contain impurities that have their own biological action. Based on these false signals, the report concluded that curcumin is unlikely to be a good drug candidate.
The review was published earlier this month in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry and it cites 164 peer reviewed articles. Its authors include medical chemists and natural product researchers, among others in the fields of chemistry, biochemistry and medicine. They hope to alert researchers as to potential “problematic research approaches and improve the significance of science performed in the area of turmeric” to prevent effort and funding being wasting unnecessarily.
Some researchers are still optimistic that modified forms of curcumin might prove more effective. The authors of the report discussed potential new directions for curcumin research, including the utilisation of its low absorptivity into the bloodstream. This property may be able to affect gut microbiota associated with colitis related colorectal cancer and offer a treatment for some of the disease’s symptoms.
Despite the conclusions on curcumin as a drug candidate, the authors note that they do not seek to dispute the beneficial effects of crude turmeric extract as a herbal/dietary supplemental or its use in cosmetics.
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