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Bitter Melon Potentially Stops Cancer Cells In Their Tracks

Bitter melon is a funny-looking plant resembling a very wrinkled cucumber, and it’s also known as wild gourd, wild cucumber or bitter apple. In traditional medicine, bitter melon is used to treat a number of conditions, ranging from colic to diabetes. A number of websites have picked up the claim that it can possibly cure cancer, but how accurate is this?

Image by Kristine Paulus via Flickr

Image by Kristine Paulus via Flickr

Professor Ratna Ray published the original research in the Cancer Research journal in 2010, and the conclusion was that an extract of bitter melon could force cell death in breast cancer cells within 48 hours in a laboratory setting. What that means is that the extract forces the cells to self-destruct.

In addition, the cells stop dividing. However, this is relatively easy to accomplish — most cells self-destruct with a huge number of compounds. What was interesting was that the same extract did not destroy noncancerous cells (the control group) even after five days. She carried out similar research with prostate cancer cells in 2011.

The problem with extrapolating these results, carried out in a petri dish, to humans is that the conditions within a petri dish are very different to the conditions within the human body. The other problem is that these compound or compounds that lead to this effect have not been identified. You cannot simply inject a load of bitter melon extract straight into a tumor — that could be potentially deadly, particularly as a number of sulfur-based compounds in bitter melon can interact with many cancer drugs.

Image by Christina Beckerman via Flickr

Image by Christina Beckerman via Flickr

However, Professor Ray did not stop there. In 2013, she assisted with another study in the journal PLOS One. In it, the team describes treating neck and head cancer in mice with bitter melon extract. These mice are designed to grow tumors, and treatment with bitter melon extract reduced the size of the tumor and its rate of growth.

The extract was created by pulverizing bitter melon, centrifuging it so that only the liquid remained, and then freeze-drying the extract until it was needed. In this case, it was fed to the mice.

Again, this research produced an interesting result: the extract reduced tumor growth significantly. Unfortunately, the agent or agents producing this effect were not identified, so the actual drug causing this effect cannot yet be isolated. This creates a problem for those who wish to turn this into a medication that can be tested and then used to treat humans. The PLOS One paper indicates the mechanism by which cancer cells are killed, potentially leading to identification of the compound responsible.

This research also built on an earlier 2013 paper published in the journal Carcinogenesis by Kaur et al. that discussed treating cancerous pancreatic cell lines with bitter melon extract. Similar to the 2010 and 2011 studies, bitter melon extract was effective at killing the cell lines in a petri dish. However, this research was one of the first to use mice models as well, although it didn’t identify how the process happened.

Image by U.S. Army RCDEOM via Flickr

Image by U.S. Army RCDEOM via Flickr

A number of websites also make the general assumption that eating a load of bitter melon can reduce the incidence of cancer in humans. This is not necessarily accurate, as chemical changes happen within the stomach and the intestines that destroy complex molecules, rendering them ineffective, and a mouse stomach is quite different from a human stomach. This is an issue that Professor Ray warns against: “Bitter melon is common in China and India, and women there still get breast cancer.”

Although the way this research has been reported hasn’t always been completely accurate, its results are encouraging and show potential. It also shows that high-quality research can and does happen for biological products. It remains to be seen whether this research leads to a viable treatment option, but it could become another tool in the fight against cancer.

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