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Curcumin for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer: healthy plant substances and their transport into the body

Turmeric: Indians swear by the use of this yellow spice and believe in its healing power. In India, turmeric (curcumin) is believed to protect against cancer and help reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease. Along with four academic and five industrial partners, Dr. Jan Frank from the University of Hohenheim is investigating how the effect of curcumin can be enhanced. The German Ministry of Education and Research is supporting the consortium with funds totalling 1.5 million euros, of which 462,000 euros are allocated to the Hohenheim researchers, giving the project the status of a “heavyweight” research area at the University of Hohenheim.

Turmeric (Curcuma longa) © aboutpixel.de / Curry © Diana Kettern

All compounds that form the basis of a plant's colour, taste or scent, whether they are sweet, bitter, red, yellow or green, contribute to making the plants enjoyable to look at and tasty to eat. However, these characteristics, known as secondary plant substances, are only really the icing on the cake. The main benefit of food derived from plants is to provide the body with nutrients, mineral compounds and vitamins. In contrast to the primary substances, the body only takes up small quantities of secondary plant compounds, which it then quickly excretes.

These secondary substances, now commonly referred to as nutraceuticals, may have a beneficial effect for human health. "The organism recognises them as foreign substances and tries to get rid of them immediately," explains Dr. Jan Frank from the Institute of Biological Chemistry and Nutrition Research at the University of Hohenheim. "This is why we are investigating strategies to outwit the body and encourage it to either absorb larger quantities of the secondary substances or delay their clearance from the body."

Turmeric is a deep orange-yellow powder and is a common ingredient in curries. It is associated with five major health benefits, which include a potential capacity to decrease the blood cholesterol level, as an antioxidant and as an anti-inflammatory agent. In addition, it has been shown to prevent or slow the progression of cancerous diseases. Since it also delays age-related alterations in the brain, it might also reduce the risk of people developing Alzheimer's disease.

Investigating the use of turmeric for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and tumour growth

In cooperation with five industrial partners, Dr. Frank and four academic research groups are investigating whether the health-promoting activities of curcumin (the active ingredient of turmeric that gives it its yellow colour) can be enhanced. Dr. Gunter Eckert from the University of Frankfurt, Professor Gerald Rimbach from the University of Kiel and Professor Tilman Grune from the University of Jena are focusing on “healthy ageing and the prevention of age-related dementia”.

Dr. Eckert is investigating to what extent curcumin is able to prevent age-related alterations in brain cells. Prof. Dr. Rimbach is investigating whether the protective effect of curcumin depends on a person’s genetic make-up. Prof. Dr. Grune is investigating how curcumin leads to the activation of brain macrophages and the removal of damaged cell constituents. Dr. Jakob Weißenberger from the University Hospital of Frankfurt is dealing with the question as to how curcumin is able to impair the growth of brain tumours.

Transport systems into the body

Micelle used for curcumin transport © Aquanova AG

Dr. Frank is investigating how curcumin is transported into the body. "The question is: how can we bring valuable nutraceuticals into the organism and make sure that they remain there for the length of time required to exert a positive effect on human health. We found that the consumption of capsules containing 12 g curcumin did not lead to measurable quantities of curcumin in the blood."

Dr. Frank, the project coordinator, bases the research on two basic strategies - camouflage and detraction. "Camouflage means that we package the neutraceuticals in a way that prevents the human body from recognising them," said the researcher from Hohenheim whose particular task involves packaging the neutraceuticals into micelles and microsinates.

"Micelles are found in the intestines; they serve as transport vehicles for fat-soluble nutrients. We are able to use artificial product micelles for this purpose." Darmstadt-based AQUANOVA AG, one of the project's industrial partners, specialises in the production of product micelles.

The other packaging method involves micronisates, which are porous carrier substances. When nutraceuticals are applied to these substances, their solubility increases and their absorption by the body is facilitated. The Kulmbach-based company Raps GmbH & Co. KG produces the microsinates used in the project.

The second strategy revolves around detraction: "We offer the body other substances which it then has to deal with and metabolise. This basically means that we expose the body to other substances, and hope that this will detract the body from degrading and eliminating our target substance, i.e. curcumin."

Food with health effects

The new carrier systems will be developed as part of the project. If this results in an improvement in the bioavailability of the active substances contained in the carriers, the new systems could potentially be used in beverages, fruit smoothies and bakery products. This food-related subproject involves three small- and medium-sized food industry companies: Bad Vilbel-based Hassia Mineralquellen GmbH & Co. KG, Schwartauer Werke GmbH & Co. KGaA and Hamburg-based Kampffmeyer Food Innovation GmbH.

The partners are aiming to produce food with additional value, i.e. functional food with extra health benefits for consumers. “However, we still have a lot of work ahead of us before we can think of marketing these types of functional foods,” said Dr. Frank. “We need to test whether the bioavailability of nutraceuticals differs between young and old people and between men and women.” A human study will be carried out to test the enhanced effect of the new functional food in relation to normal curcumin-containing food.

Further information:
Dr. Jan Frank
University of Hohenheim (from 2011 onwards)
Biochemistry of Nutrition
Tel.: +49 (0)711/459-24459
E-mail: jan.frank@nutrition-research.de

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/press-release/curcumin-for-the-treatment-of-alzheimer-s-disease-and-cancer-healthy-plant-substances-and-their-tran