Curry cures? University researchers uncover truth behind natural remedies

By Stephanie Steinberg, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 8, 2009

When a child gets sick, most parents usually opt for traditional remedies like Vicks VapoRub to break up their child’s congestion, instead of taking the child to campus eatery Shalimar for spicy jhinga curry. However, a recent study found that tumeric powder may actually help boost the immune system.

Turmeric powder, the main spice that gives curry its distinctive taste, has been used in India and other Asian countries as a remedy to combat fevers, colds, coughs and wounds for thousands of years. But now, after two years of research, Ayyalusamy Ramamoorthy, a professor of chemistry and biophysics, believes he has uncovered the scientific reasoning behind the powder’s mysterious health benefits.

Ramamoorthy and a team of University researchers released a study last week explaining how turmeric’s main ingredient, curcumin, works to cure illnesses in the human body.

In the study, the researchers discovered that curcumin interacts with cell membranes, causing cells to exhibit antitumor, anticancer, antiviral and antioxidant effects.

“Studies have shown that people who have a lot of spicy food with turmeric powder have less neurological disorders or Alzheimer’s disease,” Ramamoorthy said. “That led us to this problem of understanding what it does to the biological system like cell membranes.”

Ramamoorthy said curcumin directly binds to a cell’s membrane and hardens the lipid molecules, which gives the cell greater protection.

“In the end, it makes the membrane more rigid so that anything that attacks the membrane finds it very hard to damage the membrane,” he said.

LSA senior Michelle Fritz and LSA senior Jeffrey Barry are two undergraduate students who assisted in the research and both contributed to the paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society last week.

Fritz said she had never taken biology or organic chemistry courses at the University before participating in the research, but said she became involved in the study because of her “(interest) in doing something that pertained to the medical field.”

Fritz said she and Barry worked to understand how curcumin interacts with the membrane to cause the death of cancer cells and how it affects proteins.

“One of the theories is that it can change the bilayer properties,” Barry said. “And by doing that it can change how each protein functions.”

Ramamoorthy said he’s not interested in capitalizing on the medicinal effects of curcumin by creating a product for public consumption, but other researchers at the Medical School are synthesizing derivatives of curcumin to see if it can potentially be used as a drug.

“I am a chemist, and I am also a biophysicist,” Ramamoorthy said. “I’m interested in knowing how it functions, what are its properties, how it targets the cell and what kinds of properties makes this more relevant to biology and medicine in pharmaceutical applications.”