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Compounds in Celery Kill Pancreatic Cancer Cells

Update Date: Aug 16, 2013 11:16 AM EDT

Foods rich in flavonoids like celery, artichokes and herbs like Mexican oregano may help fight and prevent pancreatic cancer.

In a laboratory experiment, researchers found that flavonoids like apigenin and luteolin kill human pancreatic cancer cells by inhibiting an important enzyme.

"Apigenin alone induced cell death in two aggressive human pancreatic cancer cell lines. But we received the best results when we pre-treated cancer cells with apigenin for 24 hours, then applied the chemotherapeutic drug gemcitabine for 36 hours," Elvira de Mejia, a University of Illinois professor of food chemistry and food toxicology, said in a news release.

Instead of applying the flavonoids simultaneously with chemotherapeutic drugs, scientists used the plant compounds as pre-treatment.

"Even though the topic is still controversial, our study indicated that taking antioxidant supplements on the same day as chemotherapeutic drugs may negate the effect of those drugs," researcher Jodee Johnson said in a news release.

"That happens because flavonoids can act as antioxidants. One of the ways that chemotherapeutic drugs kill cells is based on their pro-oxidant activity, meaning that flavonoids and chemotherapeutic drugs may compete with each other when they're introduced at the same time," she explained.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer-related deaths, with a five-year survival rate of only 6 percent. This is because it is a very aggressive cancer with few early symptoms, meaning that the cancer is often not found before it has spread.

While the ultimate goal is to find a cure, researchers said prolonging the lives of patients would be a significant development.

The study found that apigenin inhibited an enzyme called glycogen synthase kinase-3? (GSK-3?), which led to a decrease in the production of anti-apoptotic genes in the pancreatic cancer cells. Apoptosis means that the cancer cell self-destructs because its DNA has been damaged.

Researchers found that the percentage of cancer cells undergoing apoptosis went from 8.4 percent in untreated cancer cell lines to 43.8 percent in cells treated with the flavonoid. Researchers noted that in this case, no chemotherapy drug had been added.

Researchers found that treatment with the flavonoid also modified gene expression.

"Certain genes associated with pro-inflammatory cytokines were highly upregulated," de Mejia said.

Researchers said the study published in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research is the first to show that apigenin treatment can lead to an increase in interleukin 17s in pancreatic cells, showing its potential relevance in anti-pancreatic cancer activity.

While patients would not be able to eat enough flavonoid-rich foods to raise blood plasma levels of the flavonoid to an effective level, scientists could design drugs that would help achieve those concentrations.

Researchers said the latest findings suggest that flavonoids might also protect people from pancreatic cancer.

"If you eat a lot of fruits and vegetables throughout your life, you'll have chronic exposure to these bioactive flavonoids, which would certainly help to reduce the risk of cancer," de Mejia noted.

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