SLU researcher studies effect of bitter melon extract on treating cancer

Published on March 24, 2013 at 7:24 AM · No Comments

A Saint Louis University researcher has received a $39,425 grant from the Lottie Caroline Hardy Charitable Trust to continue her research on treating cancer with a natural substance -- the extract taken from a vegetable that is part of her diet.

Ratna Ray, Ph.D., professor of pathology at SLU, is studying the effect of the extract from bitter melon, which is often used in Indian and Chinese cooking, on head and neck cancer cells.

"The goal of our study is to see if a complementary alternative medicine treatment based upon bitter melon can stop the spread of head and neck cancer," she said.

Ray studies using bitter melon extract to prevent or treat cancer by thwarting the spread of cancer cells. In a controlled lab setting, she previously found that bitter melon extract activated a pathway that triggered the death of breast cancer cells, stopping them from growing and spreading. The effectiveness of using bitter melon extract to treat breast cancer in people has not been tested.

Then, with funding from the National Institutes of Health, she expanded her research on bitter melon extract to include prostate cancer prevention.

With that research underway, Ray discussed her bitter melon research with Dr. Mark Varvares, a SLUCare head and neck cancer specialist and director of the Saint Louis University Cancer Center, who thought her findings could have implications for treating head and neck cancer and warranted more study.

"We have pretty good indications that bitter melon extract works in cancer cell lines to halt the growth," Ray said. "I think it might be effective to treat solid tumors, and our grant will help us to get pre-clinical data to show whether something that looks promising in fighting breast cancer could work in other cancers."

For her research, she will feed bitter melon extract to mice that have head and neck cancer to see if the substance sparks anti-tumor activity.

If bitter melon extract stops the growth of cancer cells in animals, the findings could lay the groundwork for studying the treatment in a phase I clinical trial of human patients who have head and neck cancer, Ray said.

Head and neck cancers, which account for 6 percent of all cancer cases, start in the mouth, nose, sinuses, voicebox and throat. They frequently are aggressive, and often spread from one part of the head or neck to another.

"Treatments for head and neck cancers often include surgery and radiation, which impact a patient's quality of life, such as how he or she feels, looks, talks, eats and breathes. It's important to develop additional new therapies that are effective and much less invasive," Ray said.

Bitter melon, a vegetable that is a staple of diets in India and China, is also a folk remedy in those countries for treating diabetes. Metformin, a drug developed to treat diabetes, is used for cancer therapy. Ray hypothesized that a folk medicine for diabetes also might work to treat cancer.

"When we started, not much work was done in this area," Ray said.

Ray, who comes from India, says bitter melon is an acquired taste, which she likes. She includes bitter melon in stir fries with eggplant, potatoes and squash, sautéed in canola oil and seasoned with Indian spices. Those who don't like the taste can try boiled bitter melon mashed with potatoes, which removes some of the bitterness, she added.


Saint Louis University School of Medicine

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