Researchers in India have figured out the reason why capsaicin, the compound that puts the "heat" in spicy food, causes some cancer cells to self-destruct.
In the 2000 song "B.O.B," Andre 3000 of Outkast once rapped, "Stack of question with no answers / Cure for cancer, cure for AIDS." And at the time, there truly were no answers.
But flash forward 15 years, and we've made a little bit of headway. New medicines for AIDS and HIV have proven surprisingly promising, and more research is being done to combat cancer than ever before. Which is important, because cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the US, accounting for about one out of four deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.
And now, a compound found in chili peppers could be bringing us one step closer to eliminating the deadly disease.
Back in 2006, trials on mice showed that capsaicin, the compound in peppers that gives them their fiery flavor, inhibits the growth of and destroys prostate cancer cells without harming non-cancerous cells. In fact, the compound shrank the size of tumors in mice to one-fifth the size of those in untreated mice. But what they couldn't figure out was how, or why. Needless to say, the discovery warranted further investigation.
Scientists and medical experts wanted to figure out how to process capsaicin into a cancer-fighting medication that could be used practically, since the number of chili peppers a human would need to eat in order to reach the therapeutic level would be unrealistic to achieve through diet. A 200-pound man would have had to eat about ten whole, fresh habaneros per week to attain the levels of capsaicin given to the lab mice. (That might not sound like much to lovers of spicy food, but it's a whole lot for the average joe—especially someone who is undergoing cancer treatment and might not have the most voracious appetite.)
Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, have unlocked the process that causes this effect on prostate cancer cells. According to study leads Ashok Kumar Mishra and Jitendriya Swain, capsaicin binds to the membranes of the cancerous cells. It then pulls the membrane apart, destroying the whole cell in the process in about 80 percent of cases.
Best of all, it has no adverse side effects on other parts of the body. Their findings are published in the American Chemical Society's Journal of Physical Chemistry B.
A separate study from last year found that capsaicin also fights bowel cancer, extending the lifespan of tumor-prone mice by some 30 percent.
This information also follows the release of a study last month showing that moderate to high consumption of spicy foods can help to lower the risk of early death. Capsaicin already has other medical applications, such as being used in numbing creams and topical pain relievers.
But more importantly, it's what adds the heat to your hot sauce. Just one more reason why you can feel good about going heavy on the Tapatío tonight.