July 8, 2009

The Spice of Life?

An ingredient in curry has been found to reduce weight in mice; human trials are up next

By Marjorie Howard

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door. Keep mice slender, and you might make the six o’clock news.

In a recent issue of the Journal of Nutrition, Friedman School Professor Mohsen Meydani and his colleagues published the results of their research showing that curcumin, a substance found in a spice used to make curry, kept mice from gaining weight. Intrigued by the notion of a common ingredient helping to prevent weight gain, newspapers and websites from London and India to Italy and the United States picked up the story. Now Meydani hopes to replicate his findings in people.

Curcumin is found in turmeric, a spice used frequently in curries. Photo: iStock

Curcumin, he explains, is found in turmeric, a spice used in the daily diet in India and Pakistan. Meydani also directs the Vascular Biology Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts.  

“Turmeric is known for having anti-cancer activity, and it also inhibits the formation of new blood vessels in tumors, a process called angiogenesis,” he says. Curcumin is a type of phytochemical known as a polyphenol. Phytochemicals, which scientists believe help prevent disease, are found in plants. Curcumin is bioactive, meaning it interacts with living tissue and is absorbed for use by the body.

Meydani and his laboratory decided to treat the growth of fat tissue as if it were a tumor needing blood vessels to provide oxygen and nutrients in order to grow. They wondered if curcumin would suppress angiogenesis in fat tissue and prevent it from expanding.

During their research, two groups of mice were fed the same high-fat diets for 12 weeks. One group, though, also received curcumin supplements. The curcumin did not affect appetite: each group ate the same amount of food. But the mice receiving the supplements did not gain as much weight as the mice that did not. Not only was fat tissue suppressed, says Meydani, but the mice receiving curcumin had lower blood cholesterol levels and less fat in their livers.

Meydani in collaboration with Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the HNRCA, has now submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health, seeking funding to continue his research, this time with people. For the human trials, 60 people will be divided into three groups. One will be given 2.5 grams of curcumin a day; a second group will receive 5 grams a day, and the third group will not receive any curcumin.

The participants will be people who are obese and overweight and they will be given behavioral and nutritional counseling. Their diets will be the same, except for the curcumin. The idea is to see if people taking curcumin lose weight more quickly than those who don’t take it.

Meydani notes that curcumin seems to show promise for a variety of conditions. “There are 30 or more human clinical trials going on supported by the NIH, mainly for the prevention and treatment of cancer using curcumin. There are lots of claims for this compound, including anti-inflammatory properties as well as those preventing angiogenesis. If it’s going to work on obesity, that will be very interesting. We are crossing our fingers.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.

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