The biochemical disciplinarian

By Archita Bhatta
Published: Monday 15 June 2009

-- Curcumin, turmeric's active molecule, is a cell stabilizer

from a spice dominating the Indian kitchen to its mention in the ancient texts of Ayurveda, turmeric has uses galore. Now the workings of this chemical can also be mimicked to produce medicines to boost the immune system and treat complex diseases like cancer.

Studies have shown that the chemical responsible for the healing power of turmeric is a compound of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, called curcumin. But how curcumin acts was not known. This is because a detailed study at the molecular level, of curcumin interacting with cells, had never been attempted before.

Researchers from the University of Michigan, usa, studied the workings of curcumin with the help of an instrument that traces reactions between molecules. They found that curcumin acts as a biochemical disciplinarian.

Curcumin molecules insert themselves into cell membranes and stabilize them. Each molecule is anchored between the two lipid layers--that make up a cell membrane--by binding to the phosphate group of the lipids, said the study published in the April 1 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The binding comes about by hydrogen bonding--loose bonds between hydrogen atoms of curcumin and oxygen atoms of the phosphate group of lipids.

Down to Earth "An organised cell membrane helps any cell perform all its functions better. So cells like blood platelets, white blood corpuscles, skin cells start playing their part better in healing a wound when their membranes are better organized," said N Raghuran, who teaches biotechnology at Indraprastha University, Delhi. For example, with their cell membranes intact, blood platelets help in quicker clot formation, white blood corpuscles resist infection more efficiently and damaged skin cells divide and regenerate rapidly, healing the wound faster. This capability of curcumin to help cells perform their functions better makes turmeric a general health booster, said the study.

Turmeric led to a legal battle between the US and the Indian government during 1995-1997 when the United States Patent Office granted patent rights to the University of Mississipi in the US for use of turmeric powder as a wound-healing agent. India won the battle when it got the US Patents and Trademark Office to reject claims for the patent by proving that Indians have been using turmeric powder as an infection-healing agent for centuries.

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