Researchers identify food additive that may prevent skin cancer

January 28, 2016

University of Arizona College of Pharmacy researchers have discovered that a compound found in the natural food additive annatto prevents the formation of cancer cells and skin damage from UV radiation in mice. According to Georg Wondrak, PhD, associate professor, and Donna Zhang, PhD, professor, both members of the University of Arizona Cancer Center, who published a study in Free Radical Biology and Medicine titled, “System Administration of the Apocarotenoid Bixin Protects Skin against Solar UV-Induced Damage through Activation of Nrf2.” Bixin is a bright reddish orange compound found in annatto, a natural condiment and food coloring derived from the seeds of the achiote fruit. Annatto, also known as achiote, has been a common ingredient in Latin American cooking since the pre-Columbian era.It is a seed once used by Mayans as body paint and today as an orange food coloring in cheddar cheese.Researchers believe it could prove useful in the fight against skin cancer.Annatto has been a source of lipstick, body makeup, and cooking ingredients for native Americans. Now it is used as a common food additive for things like cheese, butter and margarine.Bixin, may be valuable in the prevention and treatment of human skin cancers.Dr. Wondrak’s lab works to find small molecules, often in edible plants, that can prevent skin cancer.

Dr. Zhang is a leading expert on the Nrf2 transcription factor, which strengthens cells against exposure to carcinogens.Dr. Wondrak’s investigations occasionally identify a compound that activates the Nrf2 pathway, and he calls on Dr. Zhang to collaborate in determining whether the compound has cancer-preventive properties.In the recent study, mice injected with bixin and uninjected mice were exposed to UV radiation. The mice with the bixin injection experienced much less severe skin sun damage.Dr. Wondrak says this discovery is unique because bixin is a nutritional factor, not a sunscreen applied to the skin. It prevents UV skin damage from the inside out by inducing cells to make protective antioxidants and repair factors. The compound does not kill skin cancer cells, but prevents their forming in the first place. Drs. Wondrak and Zhang find this research especially compelling because it involves a commonly consumed food substance.From this research, the study authors note that Bixin actually reduces the risk of cancerous skin cells by preventing them from forming in the first place.The nutritional discovery works by preventing UV damage from the inside out by inducing cancer cells to make protective antioxidants and repair factors.

Scientists hope to find out whether Bixin could prevent UV skin damage like it did in humans. Since annatto is approved by the Food and Drug Administration(FDA) as a safe food additive, its use in future clinical trials is expected to require fewer rounds of testing. With continued research into bixin’s effects, scientists soon may know if foods with annatto can help prevent sun damage, photo-aging and cancer in humans.Seems good times are ahead of skin cancer patients as last week, a new drug was approved on the UK’s NHS for the treatment of advanced skin cancer after the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommended nivolumab also known as Opdivo, a type of immunotherapy which stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. Research has found that patients survive much longer on the drug than those given conventional chemotherapy.The one-year survival rate was 73 per cent for those on nivolumab compared with 42 per cent for chemotherapy.Nivolumab targets and blocks a protein called PD-1 on the surface of certain immune cells called T-cells. Blocking PD-1 activates T-cells to find and kill cancer cells. A different study found that patients with non-small cell lung cancer treated with nivolumab lived an average of 12.2 months, while patients treated with a chemotherapy drug lived an average of 9.4 months.

Contador Harrison