Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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A medicine in mustard?

Chile peppers, turmeric (shown in middle), and garlic are displayed at a market in an Indian village. www.corbis.com/Wolfgang Koehler.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Turmeric is a bright yellow spice that colors curry powder and the mustard we squirt on hotdogs. Now scientists have discovered that it also contains a substance that may be useful for treating the life-threatening disease cystic fibrosis.

People with cystic fibrosis produce a thick mucous inside their bodies that clogs their lungs and pancreas, an organ involved in digesting food. In most cases, this disease is caused by a genetic mutation that leads the body's cells to make misformed versions of a protein called DeltaF508.

Although these misformed proteins can still safely do their job, other abnormal proteins can often be harmful to the body.

A turmeric flower blooms pink and yellow. A spice is derived from the rhizomes (underground stems that grow horizontally) of the plant. Turmeric gives curry and mustards their yellow color. www.corbis.com/Stephen Shafer.
Click here for a high resolution photograph.

Our cells are like factories, which have systems to make sure damaged items don't make it through the assembly line and go out for sale. Similarly, cells also have a "quality contol" system that catches and destroys misformed proteins. In cystic fibrosis, this system traps the DeltaF508 proteins inside the cell instead of letting them travel to the cell surface where they belong.

Marie Egan, a scientist at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, CT and the University of Toronto in Toronto, Ontario and her colleagues have discovered that a compound in the spice turmeric can help the DeltaF508 proteins escape the cell's inner machinery and travel safely to the cell surface. The researchers describe their findings in the 23 April 2004 issue of the journal Science.

The researchers fed the compound, called "curcumin," to mice with a version of cystic fibrosis. They found that the DeltaF508 proteins were working properly in the mice. The curcumin also treated the major symptoms of the disease; for example, it allowed the mice to digest food properly.

We don't have a treatment for cystic fibrosis just yet, however. More research is still necessary to see if curcumin works the same way in humans as it does in mice.


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