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Chilis May Hold Link to Lung Cancer Prevention

Piyali Dasgupta, PhD

Piyali Dasgupta, PhD

It may seem unlikely that chili peppers could help curb inflammation. But an AICR grantee is exploring how the compound called “capsaicin” in chilis may act to do just that.

AICR grantee Piyali Dasgupta, PhD, focuses on understanding the cell biology of lung cancer. An Associate Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Toxicology at Marshall University in West Virginia, she’s investigating how the active ingredient in chili peppers, capsaicin, may improve treatment for small cell lung cancer, which has a poor survival rate.

“Small cell lung cancer quickly becomes resistant to treatment,” she points out. “We hope that perhaps the combination of chemotherapy, such as cisplatin, and capsaicin may be more effective in patients than chemotherapy alone.”

Dr. Dasgupta is from India, where lung cancer rates are lower than in the U.S. She noticed that other countries like Thailand had lower lung cancer rates even though 50 percent of the population smokes. She also noticed that chili peppers were commonly eaten in these countries, so chose capsaicin, already identified by lab research as binding to a receptor in small cell lung cancer, as a preventive agent.

Quelling Cancer-Related Inflammation

The capsaicin receptor is called TRPV1 receptor. This receptor is part of a group of proteins called TRPV receptors that control our sense of temperature, says Dr. Dasgupta. When you bite into a chili pepper, the burning sensation on your tongue occurs because TRPV1 is activated.

“We discovered that capsaicin works against lung cancer cells independently of TRPV1,” she says. “We found that a separate member of the TRPV family, TRPV6, found on lung cancer cells, moderates the effect of capsaicin.

“When TRPV6 is depleted from the lung cancer cells, capsaicin is unable to cause death of small cell lung cancer cells. Now, the big question is: How does capsaicin contact TRPV6, since TRPV6 does not have a binding site for capsaicin?”

As for benefitting from eating more chili peppers, Dr. Dasgupta cautions: “We are very far away from understanding the human effects of capsaicin on a molecular level. Randomized placebo-controlled trials with humans would have to be conducted. Natural compounds in spices are generally beneficial to your health and reduce cancer risk. But it’s not possible to simply say that eating more chili peppers will cure or prevent lung cancer.

“We have two main aims going forward: developing some compounds that have less of a burning sensation than capsaicin; and doing more studies on how capsaicin links to TRPV6 and goes on to cause cell death.”

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