Celery, artichokes, and certain herbs — such as Mexican oregano — contain natural compounds that have been shown to kill pancreatic cancer cells in the lab.
New research by University of Illinois scientists has found all of these plans contain apigenin and luteolin — flavonoids that block a key enzyme involved in the growth and development of tumor cells.
The work, published online in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research
, suggests the natural compounds could boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy agents if given ahead of treatment by helping to destroy cancer cells.
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"Apigenin alone induced cell death in two aggressive human pancreatic cancer cell lines," said Elvira de Mejia, a professor of food chemistry and food toxicology. "But we received the best results when we pre-treated cancer cells with apigenin for 24 hours, then applied the chemotherapeutic drug gemcitabine for 36 hours"
Jodee Johnson, a doctoral student in de Mejia's lab, noted the research showed timing was a key factor in the antioxidants’ effectiveness against tumor cells.
"Even though the topic is still controversial, our study indicated that taking antioxidant supplements on the same day as chemotherapeutic drugs may negate the effect of those drugs," she said. "That happens because flavonoids can act as antioxidants. One of the ways that chemotherapeutic drugs kill cells is based on their pro-oxidant activity, meaning that flavonoids and chemotherapeutic drugs may compete with each other when they're introduced at the same time"
Johnson noted pancreatic cancer is a very aggressive form of the disease, with few early symptoms and no cure. It is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with a five-year survival rate of only 6 percent, she said.
In laboratory experiments, the scientists found that apigenin caused a chain reaction that essentially caused tumor cells to self-destruct. Treatment with the flavonoid also modified gene expression.
The researchers said pancreatic cancer patients would probably not be able to eat enough flavonoid-rich foods to treat the disease, but the new findings point the way for scientists to design drugs that could.
The research also suggests diets rich in antioxidants may help prevent cancer.
"If you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables throughout your life, you'll have chronic exposure to these bioactive flavonoids, which would certainly help to reduce the risk of cancer," Johnson said.
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