I’m Just Mad About Saffron….

Mind the GapAnd saffron’s mad about cancer. That’s right, the mellow yellow spice famous for its golden yellow color and earthy flavor has been shown to halt liver cancer progression in mice.

The recent study, published in the September issue of Hepatology, set out to test whether different doses of saffron could impact liver cancer. Using a well-established mouse mode for the disease (diethylnitrosamine and 2-acetylaminofluorene administration) the authors showed that at the highest dose of saffron mice showed no evidence of tumor formation, whereas 75% of the control mice developed liver nodules.

Amr Amin and his pals at the United Arab Emirates University in Al-Ain took a closer look at the molecular biology underlying this dramatic effect and found that saffron was preventing a cell proliferation gene, Ki-67, from going haywire. In addition, they noticed an increase in superoxide dismutase expression, an antioxidant enzyme responsible for neutralizing the reactive oxygen species superoxide. These observations fit nicely with previously known data regarding the detrimental effects of elevated Ki-67 and oxidative stress in cancer.

Cool! A cure for cancer?


Crocus sativus. Note the thin cures for cancer in red.

Probably not. Saffron is easily the most expensive spice on the market (around $73 an ounce) and as such doesn’t represent a viable treatment option. It’s also not all that easy to produce (which obviously contributes to the high price) as the crocus plant that develops these bright red stigma, Crocus sativus, is an artificially bred triploid cultivar that struggles with meiosis. What??? Basically it is a sterile plant, and as such the only way the plant can be farmed is through manual separation and replanting of its corms (bulb-like roots).

But what if we could artificially engineer the specific compound in saffron that is effective at halting tumor growth?

Yeah… that’s probably going to be tricky. First of all, saffron is a complex mixture of over 150 volatile compounds that give it its unique flavor and aroma, as well a bunch of non-volatiles, such as bright red crocins and carotenoids. Teasing apart which of these, or even more daunting, which combination of these, gives the desired anti-cancer effect will be no small feat.

But, plants have long been a lucrative source of lead compounds in drug development. Some notable examples include the derivation of local anesthetics from cocaine, and the cancer treatment paclitaxel (Taxol) from the Yew tree. In fact, ethnobotanists (researchers focused on understanding cultural relationships between plants and human beings) often specialize in finding and analyzing plants that have been used medicinally for centuries.

It’s not obvious to me how high the saffron dose had to be to have this cancer-protective effect in mice, or if there were any adverse side effects (a yellowing of the fur, perhaps). However, Amin et al plan on testing the spice in human liver cancer patients in the near future, so the dose/hair color effects can’t have been that serious.


Katie PrattKatie Pratt is a graduate student in Molecular Biology at Brown University. She has a passion for science communication, and in an attempt to bring hardcore biology and medicine to everyone, she blogs jargon-free at www.katiephd.com. Follow her escapades in the lab and online on Twitter.



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Miss a previous edition of Mind the Gap? Shame on you! Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered:

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Ruben C

    wrote on October 13, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    TNFα Receptor

  2. Ruben C

    wrote on October 13, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    nuclear factor-kappa B p-65 – maybe this one is the right one

  3. T. Srinath

    wrote on October 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    Cell proliferation gene kept under check by saffron is Ki-67.

  4. [email protected]

    wrote on October 13, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    That's it- we've got a winner!

  5. T. Srinath

    wrote on October 13, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    wow! joined in little late but still got it right!!! I am elated.

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