Christmas cancer cure
By: David Bradley
Gold is certainly precious, frankincense
smells nice but it was never quite obvious why the third wise man brought myrrh for the baby Jesus.
Myrrh is a yellow gum, which has for centuries been used as a herbal painkiller and for treating stomach complaints and diarrhoea. The bitter-tasting, fragrant resin has also been used for thousands of years as an ointment, perfume, incense and embalming fluid, it can even ward off bad breath.
Now, American scientists have discovered a new anticancer compound in the famously misunderstood resin of the plant Commiphora myrrha, which could make it a powerful weapon against prostate and breast cancers.
Chi-Tang Ho of the Department of Food Science, Rutgers University inspired by his late wife who died of cancer is working with chemists there and colleagues at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Osaka City University, Japan. The researchers have discovered a property of an extract from myrrh that could make it far more precious than the other two original Christmas gifts - it is a potent anticancer compound.
The researchers have shown that a sesquiterpenoid from myrrh kills breast tumour cells in the laboratory, even those that resist current anticancer drugs. "I'm optimistic that this compound can be developed into an anticancer drug," says Rutgers team member Mohamed Rafi, although he concedes that the compound is yet to be tested in animals or humans.
Shower shock chemical
The ultimate in cool
could soon be coming to a supermarket near you, with the discovery of a
natural compound that has a cooling effect 250 times stronger than
Mint is frequently added to foods to give them a kicking taste. Manufacturers also use mint extracts in shower gels and other similar products to give them that exhilarating feeling on your skin while you wash. Stimulating materials found in the leaves of the mint plant cause the effect. Menthol is the most well known of these compounds. Menthol and its chemical cousins trigger the nerve cells that detect cold without actually changing the temperature, whether it is inside your mouth or on your skin, making it cool even when it's hot.
While mint is cool, it also has a strong taste and smell, which is not always what is needed for a novelty product. Minty-tasting 'superchilly' ice cream wouldn't go down too well and imagine the pong after you've used that musky but stimulating shower gel, if it smells of mint too.
Now, a German team reckon they have discovered a mint substitute with all the bite but none of the scent in the unlikely chemical brew of dark malt. Dark malt is a melting pot of chemicals normally used to brew beer and produce whisky but chemists figured that some of its constituents might have other interesting properties. Their instincts have been proved right, not only is the mint substitute from dark malt much stronger it keeps its cool twice as long as mint.
Manufacturers are always on the look out for new taste sensations. The team, led by Thomas Hofmann of the German Research Centre for Food Chemistry in Garching, Germany, points out that products with strong cooling properties and foods with intense and different flavours can be much more appealing than their conventional counterparts.
"We have found the world's most powerful natural cooling agents without a mint odour," Hofmann says. Mint flavoured chewing gum, sweets and breath fresheners are unlikely to disappear from supermarket shelves but because there are many products that could benefit from the cooling and soothing effect of mint without the olfactory assault.
Hofmann believes the new compound will be used to make exciting new food and drink products such as cooling chocolate bars and fresher-tasting fruit juice that would taste disgusting if mint were used. He adds that tingly shampoos, astringents, non-minty toothpaste and invigorating body lotions.
To find the new taste-free cooling compounds the researchers tested 26 compounds and compared them with the active ingredient in mint - menthol. Fifteen expert tasters gave their verdict. The team found that four of the test compounds had the desired cooling effect but had no minty odour. But, one of the materials was 35 stronger in the mouth and 250 times stronger than menthol on the skin.
The compounds go by the name of cyclic alpha-keto enamines, which is something of a mouthful and no doubt the manufacturers' marketing teams will come up with a bite-size alternative. Hofmann reckons products containing the new compound will appear in the shops in a year or two.