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Curry spice and cauliflower could help in the fight against prostate cancer

24 January 2006 - written by Mark Pownall for Bupa's health information team

Turmeric, a spice commonly used in Indian cooking, may help to treat and prevent prostate cancer, according to a recent study. A chemical found in certain vegetables, such as cauliflower and broccoli, may help prevent cancer. The beneficial effects of both turmeric and the chemical are particularly strong when used together in this study in mice.

How was the study carried out?

Scientists at Rutgers University in the US, tested the effects of turmeric on human-like prostate cancers growing in laboratory mice. They also tested the effect of a chemical found in many cruciferous vegetables, known as phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC). Scientists already knew that turmeric and PEITC were effective against prostate-cancer cells in test-tube experiments. This study is the first to show the effect of turmeric and PEITC on animals.

What did the study show?

When PEITC was injected into the mice, it significantly slowed down cancer growth. A combination of PEITC and turmeric given together had a bigger effect than when either was given on its own. Researchers found that the combination of the two was effective even on well-established tumours.

Why were the results interesting?

The study offers hope for potential new treatments for prostate cancer. The new trial may also help to explain why there is so little prostate cancer in countries such as India, where turmeric is widely used in meals. But this finding could also be due to chance.

The researchers suggest that eating more cruciferous vegetables (such as watercress, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and turnips) may help protect against the disease. It also suggests that eating a high-vegetable diet, spiced with turmeric may help. However, these are animal studies and it has not been proven in humans so it is too early to advise men to change their diets for certain.

What is prostate cancer?

In prostate cancer, cells grow out of control in the prostate, a walnut-sized organ that is a part of the male reproductive tract. The out-of-control cells grow into cancer. Individual cells may then break away and spread around the body.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of prostate cancer include:

  • the need to urinate more frequently, especially at night
  • an urgent need to urinate, and difficulty in starting
  • taking a long time to finish
  • a weak flow of urine
  • pain at urination
  • pain at ejaculation
  • genital pain
  • lower back pain
  • blood in the urine

What does the prostate do?

The prostate gland releases a fluid, which mixes with sperm and other fluids, to form semen. This fluid nourishes the sperm, as well as helping it to reach and fertilise an egg.

How many people develop this kind of cancer?

There are nearly 32,000 new cases of prostate cancer every year and about 10,000 deaths. The number of new cases of prostate cancer has been rising since the mid 1970s, although the number of deaths has remained stable.

What are the main risk factors?

This type of cancer is much more common in older men and is unusual in people under 55. Family history of prostate cancer is also a risk factor. Generally speaking, men who have a brother or father who was diagnosed with the disease at a younger age have a higher risk of getting the disease themselves. Prostate cancer is also more common among black-skinned men than white or Asian men. Men who have diabetes have less risk of getting the disease, although no one really knows why. As with many other cancers, experts think that a diet high in animal fats and low in fresh fruit and vegetables may increase the risk.

Should you start eating more curries now?

The research is at an early stage, so it cannot guarantee that eating more spicy curries containing turmeric will prevent prostate cancer. But eating more vegetables is already recommended as part of a healthy diet. The possibility that a vegetable-rich diet may help prevent prostate cancer is a good reason to boost your intake of vegetables containing PEITC.

What is the usual treatment for prostate cancer?

There are several treatments used in treatment of prostate cancer. These include surgery, radiotherapy and various forms of drug treatment. Hormone therapy is commonly used. It blocks the action of testosterone, a sex hormone that prostate cancers need in order to grow.

What about screening for prostate cancer?

It is possible to screen for prostate cancer. This involves measuring the levels of a protein called prostate specific antigen (PSA). This is often found in higher levels in men with prostate cancer. However, PSA is also found in high levels in other medical conditions - including prostate inflammation, urinary infections, enlargement of the prostate. So high levels of PSA don't necessarily mean you've got prostate cancer.

A PSA test can detect early prostate cancer before there are any symptoms. Early treatment can prevent the disease becoming more advanced. Many men will be reassured by a regular test for early signs of prostate cancer. However, before deciding to have the test, it's important to understand the pros and cons.

Is the PSA test completely reliable?

It is a good indicator, but the PSA test does not pick up all prostate cancers. Around 1in 5 men with prostate cancer will have a normal PSA level. Around 2 in 3 men with high levels do not have prostate cancer. High levels may be found in men who have very slow-growing cancers that will never cause any symptoms or have any effect on lifespan.

Further research is being carried out on prostate screening tests to improve detection rates.

Further information


  • Tony Kong A-N et al., Combined inhibitory effects of curcumin and phenethyl isothiocyanate on the growth of human PC-3 prostate xenografts in immunodeficient mice. Cancer Research 15 January 2006; 66 (2)
  • The Prostate Cancer Charity. Symptoms of Prostate Cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK. Prostate Cancer: Brief Sheets.
  • Cancer Research UK. CancerStats. Mortality-UK.
  • Prostate Cancer Risks and Causes.

All pages were accessed on 16 January 2006

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