Scientists have discovered that juice from bitter melon also known as bitter gourd or ‘karela’, used for centuries against diabetes in the folk medicines of India and China, can prevent pancreatic cancer.

Researchers from the University of Colorado, Denver, found that bitter melon juice restricts the ability of pancreatic cancer cells to metabolise glucose, cutting the cells’ energy source and eventually killing them in mouse models.

“Three years ago researchers showed the effect of bitter melon extract on breast cancer cells only in a Petri dish. This study goes much, much farther,” said Rajesh Agarwal, co-programme leader of Cancer Prevention and Control at the CU Cancer Centre and professor at the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences.

“We used the juice — people especially in Asian countries are already consuming it in quantity — to show that it affects the glucose metabolism pathway to restrict energy and kill pancreatic cancer cells,” Agarwal said.

Agarwal’s interest came from connecting the dots of existing research in a novel way. Diabetes tends to presage pancreatic cancer and bitter melon has been shown to effect type-II diabetes, and has been used for centuries in China and India.

Following this line of thinking, Agarwal and colleagues wondered what would happen if they closed out the middle man of diabetes and directly explored the link between bitter melon and pancreatic cancer.

The result, Agarwal said, is, “alteration in metabolic events in pancreatic cancer cells and an activation of the AMP-activated protein kinase, an enzyme that indicates low energy levels in the cells.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, bitter melon also regulates insulin secretion by pancreatic beta cells. After studies in cell cultures, the group showed that mouse models of pancreatic cancer that were fed bitter melon juice were 60 per cent less likely to develop the disease than controls.

“It’s a very exciting finding. Many researchers are engineering new drugs to target cancer cells’ ability to supply themselves with energy, and here we have a naturally-occurring compound that may do just that,” Agarwal said in a statement.

The study was published in the journal Carcinogenesis.

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