Chile Pepper: Cancer Can't Stand the Heat

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By Lindsey Garner, MD Anderson Staff Writer

chilis.jpgSpices have been used for centuries as a preserving agent and to add flavor and color to food. Now, spices are emerging as a possible therapy to prevent and treat diseases -- even cancer.

Chile pepper, a customary spice used in Texas and the southwest, has shown anti-cancer effects in research with mice. Capsaicin, the active ingredient in chile pepper and the source of its heat, is the cancer-fighting element.

Capsaicin is also thought to:

  • Boost metabolism
  • Lower the risk of ulcers
  • Improve heart health
  • Relieve muscle pain and itchiness
Research is promising
Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Experimental Therapeutics, has spent more than 20 years researching spices at MD Anderson.

Led by Aggarwal, research using capsaicin nutraceuticals (supplements) in mice resulted in suppressing and blocking pro-inflammatory pathways in cancer cells.

"Inflammation has turned out to be a common denominator," Aggarwal says. "Symptoms common in cancer patients, such as depression, fatigue, neuropathic pain, metastases and tumor growth, are due to inflammation. By using capsaicin, we can inhibit these things."

Also, major risk factors for the most common types of cancer, such as obesity, alcohol, tobacco, radiation and environmental pollutants, are linked to cancer and its metastases through chronic inflammation.

Too hot to handle
The problem with using chile peppers is their extreme heat.

A Phase III placebo-controlled trial at the Geisinger Clinical Oncology Program in Danville, Pa., tested capsaicin cream for the management of surgical neuropathic pain in 99 cancer patients. Each used capsaicin cream for eight weeks followed by eight weeks of placebo cream on painful sites four times daily. Despite experiencing side effects of skin burning and redness, patients preferred capsaicin cream to the placebo for its pain-relieving qualities.

"Chiles are a double-edged sword -- a little bit is good, but too much is bad," Aggarwal says. "Many people's stomachs can't handle red chile."

To avoid this problem, Aggarwal is exploring the use of capsaicin in red chiles with less heat, like red bell peppers.

Further study needed
Since the research conducted was in pre-clinical conditions with mice, clinical trials or further studies are needed to better understand capsaicin's potential in the prevention and treatment of human cancer.

However, Aggarwal believes that using capsaicin nutraceuticals as an option in cancer treatment, with a physician's consultation, shouldn't be overlooked.

"With dietary agents, like spices, there are minor to no side effects," Aggarwal says.


"To avoid this problem, Aggarwal is exploring the use of capsaicin in red chiles with less heat, like red bell peppers."

Good luck with that, since bell peppers do not have less heat, they have zero heat. Bell peppers do not produce any capsaicin whatsoever, they have a recessive gene that blocks production. So, exploring the use of capsaicin with bell peppers would be about as useful as exploring the use of capsaicin with bananas.

Also, "red chile" is not a variety of chile, it's simply a color that many turn to when ripe. Capsaicin-containing chiles ripen to many different colors, including red, yellow, orange, brown, black, purple, white, and even blue. They don't have to be red.

We contacted Dr. Aggarwal and he provided this comment.

Bell peppers do not contain capsaicin, the pungent and hot component present in red chile. However, bell peppers have an analogue of capsaicin, which does not exhibit the same pungent activity as capsaicin. More research on this is needed.

I agree! Chile peppers come in many colors. However, if they are hot, like red chiles, they have capsaicin.

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