A spice commonly used in zesty Middle Eastern foods could be useful in treating prostate cancer.

UNM researchers found that a synthetic version of curcumin, the main compound found in the spice turmeric, inhibits the growth of prostate cancer cells.

Curcumin may be packed with anti-cancer potential, but it isn’t easily absorbed into the body. The syn­thetic curcumin com­pound, which researchers refer to as “ca27,” resolves that issue, making cancer-reducing effects of curcumin useful in cancer therapy treatments, said Alexandra Fajardo, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

But Fajardo said researchers must study the compound further before they can apply it to humans.

“At no point can we say that it is going to be beneficial to humans, because we just don’t know that yet,” she said. “What we do know, though, is that ca27 is a great tool that allows us to gain more insight into studying a prominent target in prostate cancer, namely the androgen receptor.”

Marco Bisoffi, assistant professor and principal investigator from the department of biochemistry said the next steps are to test the compound in animal models.

“This would entail injecting human tumor cells into mice to grow the tumors subcutaneously (under the skin),” he said, “then feed or inject the mice with ca27 and basically see whether the tumor shrinks or not.”

Bisoffi said a crucial part of the research is to determine whether ca27 also affects normal cells and how toxic the compound is to animals. If the animal testing proves successful, he said testing in humans subjects could begin.

Still, Bisoffi said UNM researchers are excited about the discovery.

“It’s a molecular tool that we can use to study a pathway that is very important in prostate cancer,” he said.

UNM’s findings on ca27 were recently published in the journal “The Prostate.”

Seven researchers have already spent more than two years and $200,000 researching the compound.

Research is being funded by the New Mexico Cancer Center and a scholarship from Pfizer, a research-based pharmaceutical company.

Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of death among men in the U.S., killing close to 30,000 American men each year, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Turmeric has been used in traditional medicine for a variety of ailments in Asia for thousands of years, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center website.