Study finds that the crocetinic acid in saffron may inhibit the pancreatic cancer cell growth

September 16, 2015

Shrikant Anant and Animesh Dhar

For several years now, researchers in the University of Kansas Medical Center's Department of Cancer Biology have been examining the effects of crocetin on pancreatic cancer, a deadly disease which responds poorly to current chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Crocetin is derived from saffron, a popular spice and food colorant and a key ingredient in many traditional Indian medicines.

In a study just published in the journal Oncotarget, a team of researchers led by Animesh Dhar, Ph.D., an associate professor of cancer biology at KU Medical Center, found that crocetinic acid, a purified compound from crocetin, showed the inhibition of growth in human pancreatic cancer cells grown either in a dish or as tumors under the skin of mice.

Dhar said after 21 days, there was a significant reduction in tumor growth in the group of mice who received the crocetinic acid.

"The mice who were given the crocetinic acid demonstrated a 75 percent reduction in their tumor growth, while the mice in the control group, which didn't receive the crocetinic acid, actually saw a 250 percent increase in tumor growth," Dhar said.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest types of cancer. It is the fourth most common cause of cancer deaths in the United States. More than 43,000 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year and about the same number die each year from the disease. Only about 3 percent of people with pancreatic cancer live more than five years after diagnosis.

In the KU Medical Center trial, the crocetinic acid also targeted and inhibited pancreatic cancer stem cells - the deadly population of cells that usually resist conventional chemotherapy.

"Unless these stem cells are destroyed, the cancer will return," said Shrikant Anant, Ph.D., a professor of molecular and integrative physiology at KU Medical Center and associate director of cancer prevention and control at The University of Kansas Cancer Center and a co-author on the study. "If we can determine that crocetinic acid is successful in inhibiting or destroying the stem cells, it will be a major step forward in the treatment of pancreatic cancer."

The research is funded by an RO1 grant from the National Cancer Institute and a pilot project grant from the KU Cancer Center. Dhar said that the team is now seeking funding for a Phase 1 clinical trial for crocetinic acid, and they have also submitted a patent application in the hopes of commercializing the compound.

Last modified: Oct 20, 2016