A common tropically-grown fruit that has been used for centuries in India, China and South America to treat ailments from constipation and reducing inflammation to diabetes and malaria is getting a nod as a possible breast cancer treatment.
Ratna Ray, Ph.D., professor of pathology at Saint Louis University and lead researcher, said she was surprised to find that the extract from the bitter melon she cooks in stir fry may inhibit the growth of breast cancer cells.
Bitter melon extract shows promise in triggering a chain of events that kills breast cancer cells and prevents them from multiplying, she said.
"To our knowledge, this is the first report describing the effect of bitter melon extract on cancer cells," Ray said. "Our result was encouraging. We have shown that bitter melon extract significantly induced death in breast cancer cells and decreased their growth and spread."
Bitter melon extract is cultivated in Asia, Africa and South America and is used as a folk or jungle medicine remedy, but is also a diet mainstay. As such, Ray, who was educated in Calcutta, India, was quite familiar with bitter melon. The fruit grows on a vine and resembles a wrinkly cucumber. The fruit’s extract is being popularized as a dietary supplement in Western countries. It is known to contain additional glycosides such as mormordin, vitamin C, carotenoids, flavanoids and polyphenols.
According to The National Bitter Melon Council, the healing properties of bitter melon are becoming more widely accepted in the United States among natural health practitioners and even some allopathic medical doctors.
Dr. Ray’s interest in how bitter melon might impact breast cancer cells grew from earlier research showing it effectively lowers blood sugar and cholesterol levels. While it's too early to know for sure whether bitter melon extract will help breast cancer patients, the question is well worth studying, she said.
She conducted her research using human breast cancer cells in a controlled lab setting. The next step, she says, is to test the extract in an animal model to see if it plays a role in delaying the growth or killing of breast cancer cells.