Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, can act as an adjunct to conventional treatment for a wide range of dread disease or critical-illness conditions. Picture: 123RF/Sommai Larkjit
Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, can act as an adjunct to conventional treatment for a wide range of dread disease or critical-illness conditions. Picture: 123RF/Sommai Larkjit

Can natural compounds from common foods really prevent life-threatening, chronic “dread disease”?

Can these compounds make conventional treatment for cancer — and many other conditions under the dread-disease umbrella — safer, less toxic and more effective?

Speakers at an international conference on integrative and preventative medical research held in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban earlier in June suggest that they may do just that. Conference delegates included orthodox and complementary medical doctors, dietitians and nutritionists.

International speakers presented the latest research from clinical, animal and human studies into three natural compounds:

  • AHCC (active hexose correlated compound), a standardised extract from shiitake mushroom cell culture;
  • Sulforaphane, a sulfur-rich, whole, broccoli sprout raw material; and
  • Curcumin, an active ingredient in turmeric, the flowering plant best known as a yellow spice used in Indian cooking.

Cancer was a conference focus. Speakers also presented robust research for the compounds as adjuncts to conventional treatment for a wide range of dread-disease or critical-illness conditions.

These include:

  • Kidney failure;
  • Cardiovascular disease (heart attack and stroke);
  • Neurological conditions, such as Parkinson’s;
  • Chronic lung disease;
  • Chronic liver disease;
  • Auto-immune diseases, such as full-blown Aids (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and multiple sclerosis; and
  • Metabolic conditions, such as type 2 diabetes mellitus.

In all cases, patients couldn’t eat sufficient quantities of the whole foods containing the compounds to achieve therapeutic doses, the speakers said.

Japanese biochemist and nutrition scientist Dr Kohei Homma was a speaker. His fields of research are immune modulation, immunotherapy and AHCC.

Homma is senior director and research and development manager of Sapporo-based Amino-Up, one of Japan’s leading biotechnology companies. It focuses on nutrition as a cornerstone of complementary and integrative health.

Amino-up developed and holds the global patent for AHCC. Homma presented extensive research from more than 80 universities worldwide to back up claims for the extract.

When used appropriately as an adjunct to conventional cancer treatment, AHCC can make chemotherapy and radiation less toxic and more effective, he said.

AHCC has clinical applications as an adjunct to treatment for HPV (human papillomavirus) infection that significantly increases the risk of cervical cancer, he said. SA is among the top 20 countries with the highest rates of cervical cancer.

Research also shows that AHCC is a useful adjunct to conventional treatment for those with compromised immune systems, including HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) infection, Homma said.

The Joint UN Programme on HIV/Aids (UNaids) rates SA as having the “world’s largest HIV epidemic”.

Australian nutritional biochemist and experienced clinician Dr Christine Houghton gave evidence for sulforaphane that numbers around 8,000 studies. Houghton left clinical practice in 2004 to research “nutrigenomics”, a term scientists coined that same year.

Nutrigenomics opened up a “whole new world of phyto [plant] chemicals showing that phytochemicals can influence gene expression”, she said. It’s about “food talking to your genes”.

In other words, “every mouthful of food you eat is having a conversation with your DNA”, Houghton said.

Thus, you can eat either to switch on protective or disease-promoting genes, she said. Research shows that sulforaphane does the former.

At a cellular level, sulforaphane activates a “switch”, Nrf2, that governs the expression of hundreds of protective genes, Houghton said. Sulforaphane is the “most potent, naturally occurring molecule” for Nrf2 activation.

Houghton is MD and chief scientific officer of Cell-Logic, the Queensland-based specialist company in nutrigenomics, functional foods and nutraceuticals. Her PhD research at the University of Queensland investigated bioactive nutrigenomic phytochemicals with significant clinical potential.

She is the author of Switched On – Harnessing the Power of Nutrigenomics to Optimise Health (Integra, 2010).

Binu Kuruvilla, a medical doctor in clinical practice, is head of research and development at Arjuna Natural, based in Kerala, India. Kuruvilla collaborates with partners worldwide to research integrative methods for treatment of oncological, cardiovascular, metabolic, inflammatory and neurodegenerative disorders.

He does research into a potent turmeric extract used in the food supplement bio-curcumin known as BCM-95.

Curcumin’s main claim to fame is as an effective method of reducing inflammation. Kuruvilla joins experts internationally who say that inflammation is the precursor to many, if not all, chronic disease.

In some countries, doctors use BCM-95 with chemotherapeutic and radiotherapeutic agents as part of conventional cancer treatment, Kuruvilla said. Arjuna’s research supports a large body of clinical trials showing that curcumin “sensitises” cancer cells to chemotherapy and radiation.

“This allows doctors to get same efficacy of a higher dose of chemo or radiation with a lower dose, making both more effective and less toxic.”

Curcumin can also prevent oxidative stress leading to the chronic low-grade inflammation, Kuruvilla said.

Turmeric is clearly no new kid on the health block. Kuruvilla said that fresh turmeric is part of  Ayurveda, the ancient Indian traditional healing system, dating back to 6,000BC.

In modern times, about 13,000 publications show turmeric’s benefits for a wide variety of health indications.

Benefits of curcumin are limited by poor absorption and bioavailability. Kuruvilla’s research has, therefore, focused on improving both to produce a therapeutic level of free curcumin.

The result is BCM-95 – a formulation blended with essential oil of turmeric to enhance bioavailability and therapeutic activity.


  • Cape Town-based Coyne HealthCare organised the conference.

The dietary food supplements, AHCC, sulforaphane and curcumin, are widely available worldwide, including in SA, through healthcare practitioners and health shops, says Cape Town-based, international health and wellness consultant Maria Ascencao. In SA, health supplements are required to have proven safety and efficacy evidence alongside appropriate health and wellness indications, Ascencao says.