By SUSAN CALLAHAN, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist
Nowadays, you are as likely to find a powerful cancer fighting medicine in your kitchen cabinet as you are at your doctor's office. Okay, I exaggerate a bit, but not much. The latest of the anti-cancer spices receiving attention from scientists is saffron.
Saffron contains a compound which has been found to have extraordinarily powerful anti-cancer properties.
Perhaps what is making this new line of research memorable is that the saffron compound was tested against breast cancer, the most common cancer affecting women worldwide and still one of the most deadly. Once breast cancer metastisizes, mortality still ordinarily occurs within 2 years.
Origins of Saffron
Saffron is an intensely reddish gold spice believed to have first been cultivated in Greece. From Greece, the use of saffron spread to neighboring Crete, then to Egypt and to Asia. Cleopatra is said to have used saffron in her baths and as a perfume and affrodisiac. It has been used as a spice for over 3,000 years.
Today, much of the world's supply of saffron is produced in Iran. From the purple flowers, Crocus sativus, farmers harvest the reddish pigment from the stigmas in the middle of the blooms.
Saffron is often called the world's most expensive spice, valued at around $10,000 per ounce. The price is high mainly because harvesting saffron requires 150 flowers and many laborers to produce a single gram of the spice.
Crocin -- The Compound in Saffron That Inhibits Cancer's Growth
Crocin is a pigment which gives saffron its characteristic reddish color. Several studies have focused on crocin's apparent ability to trigger early death of cancer cells, a process known as "apoptosis".
Crocin interferes with the proliferation of a type of cancer cells called "MCF-7" cells. The curious thing about scientific research on cancer is that it uses cells that came from an actual human being some time ago. The person could have died many decades ago but their cells and their clones live on as a basis for research in laboratories all over the world.
In the case of MCF-7 cells, the cancer cells came from a 69 year-old women who had breast cancer on 1970. They are called MC-7 because the cells were first isolated at Michigan Cancer Foundation. This lady had two mastectomies. The cells from the first mastectomy were deemed benign. But cells taken 5 years later from a second mastectomy were found to be cancerous.
MCF-7 cells are a standard cell line used in breast cancer research. These cells are prized by cancer researchers because they are sensitive to estrogen yet they are insensitive to other compounds such as endothelin, desmin, GAP, and vimentin. MCF - 7 is often called the first hormone-sensitive cancer cell line.
Crocin to the Rescue-- How Much Saffron Is Enough to Slow Down Breast Cancer Cells?
Crocin from saffron strongly inhibits the growth of these breast cancer cells.
In 2015, scientists from Zhengzhou University demonstrated that adding crocin to laboratory dishes containing MCF- 7 cancer cells, inhibited the normally aggressive growth of the cancer cells.
Staring with a viability of 100% of the cells -- 100% of tem were alive and growing --- the scientists added increasing amounts of crocin over a 48 hour period.
Here is what they found.
After adding 25 ug/ml of crocin, viability of the cancer cells was reduced from 100% to approximately 75%.
After adding a concentration of 50 ug/ml, the viability of the cancer cells was reduced to approximately 55%.
After adding crocin at a concentration of 100 ug/ml, the cancer viability crashed to 35%.
In other words, crocin destroyed about 65% of the cancer cells.
Closer examination of the underlying processes which lead to the death of the cancer cells revealed that crocin managed to damage the membrane of the mitochondria of the cells. mitochondria is where all cells produce the energy they need to live.
Using Saffron at Home
Before we embark on a saffron-rich diet, it bears repeating --- and repeating again --- that you should of course consult with your doctor before you change your normal diet regime, especially if you have cancer.
Also, everybody's cancer is different. What works for one person may not work at all for another.
That said, there is no known downside to using saffron as a complement to any other anti-cancer strategies you may be employing.
Consider adding saffron to basmatic rice. Add it your lamb dishes, white fish, salmon, red trout, and lentils.
Experiment with saffron and your favorite shrimp and chicken recipes. Use saffron with Greek yogurt as a sauce with your favorite meaty stews.