Written by Klara Rombauts, Liene Dhooghe and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated May 7, 2014


What is it?

Scientific name(s), brand name(s), common name(s)

Curcumin or diferuloylmethane is the major constituent and active component in the Indian spice turmeric (rhizomes of Curcuma longa). Turmeric belongs to the ginger family or Zingiberaceae 1. It is also known as Indian saffron, jiang huang, haridra, haldi, as the major ingredient of curry powder 2 and as a bright yellow-orange food colouring agent (E100).

Numerous commercial products containing Curcuma longa extract are available. The activity of these preparations mainly depends on the content of curcumin.


Curcumin or diferuloylmethane [1,7-bis-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-1,6-heptadiene-3,5-dione] is the main constituent of Curcuma longa. Other constituents are the curcuminoids demethoxycurcumin and bisdemethoxycurcumin, in addition to volatile oils, sugars, proteins, and resins 3.

Application and dosage

Although oral administration is the most common way of taking this spice, poor water solubility, short biological half-life (rapid metabolisation and elimination) and low bioavailability of curcumin limits its potential effect 4-5. Doses ranging from 0.5 g up to 12 g per day have been used in clinical studies or trials. Even at high doses (up to 12 g per day) only minimal toxicity was observed 6-7. For these reasons, different approaches have been investigated: development of curcumin analogues 8; the use of adjuvants such as piperine to improve the bioavailability 9; the development of liposomes 10 and phospholipid complexes 11 in order to improve oral bioavailability, and even nanoparticles in order to allow parental administration 12. A report refers to the topical application of a curcumin ointment in patients with breast cancer 13.


Besides the use of turmeric in Indian cooking, it has been used for centuries in Indian traditional medicine (Ayurveda) in the treatment of a variety of illnesses, such as infections of the bile duct, gall bladder, liver and inflammatory diseases 14. Curcumin was first isolated in 1815 and its chemical structure was determined in 1910. In 1937 the use of curcumin in biliary diseases was documented and in 1949 antibacterial properties were reported. In 1972 the use of curcumin for the treatment of diabetes was demonstrated 1. Since then, the number of reports on pharmacological effects of curcumin increased rapidly 15. Although the Indian traditional medicine describes turmeric as a cancer remedy, the first scientific trials were not carried out until 1985 16.

Claims of efficacy / Mechanism(s) of action / Alleged indication(s)

Curcumin has been claimed to have therapeutic properties in the treatment of a broad variety of cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, gastrointestinal cancers, genitourinary cancers, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, head and neck squamous cell carcinoma, lung cancer, melanoma, neurological cancers and sarcoma 13.

Curcumin is a potent scavenger of reactive oxygen species (ROS), protecting lipids, hemoglobin and DNA against oxidative degradation. In addition, it inhibits ROS-generating enzyme cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase. Curcumin has shown to inhibit chemical carcinogenesis in different tissues, and it induces apoptosis in several tumor cell lines. The underlying mechanisms of the cancer chemopreventive properties of curcumin are: suppression of c-jun and c-fos expression; inhibition of protein kinase C (PKC) and epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) tyrosine kinase; suppression of colonic aberrant crypt foci through inhibiting inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS); inhibition of cyclo oxygenase-2 (COX-2) in bile acid and cells treated with phorbol-12-myristate-13-acetate (PMA); inhibition of xanthine oxidase; modulation of Ca+2 and cellular p53 protein; reduction of estrogen receptor positive and progesterone receptor positive mammary tumor; induction of phase-2 detoxification enzymes; suppression of hepatocellular carcinoma invasion by inhibiting matrix metallopeptidase 9 (MMP-9) 17.

Also enhancement of the apoptotic process (e.g. by inducing mitochondrial damage 18 and anti-angiogenic properties (by inhibiting the vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) 19 are reported. The potent anti-proliferative activity potentiates other anti-tumor drugs such as gemcitabine 20. Curcumin works as a chemosensitizer and radiosensitizer by downregulating various growth regulatory pathways and specific genetic targets, including genes for nuclear factor of B cells (NF-B), signal transducer and activator of transcription 3 (STAT-3), cyclooxygenase 2, protein kinase Akt, antiapoptotic proteins, growth factor receptors, and multidrug-resistance proteins 2.

The epigenetic property of curcumin is based on its interaction with histone deacetylases, histone acetyltransferases, DNA methyltransferase I, and microRNAs 21.

Several articles are available on the potential anticancer properties of curcumin. They include chemoprevention, treatment of cancer as monotherapy and in combination with existing anticancer medicines.

Prevalence of use

There is no information available on the prevalence of use of curcumin as an anticancer agent.

Legal issues

Curcumin is sold all over the world in supermarkets as an ingredient of turmeric.

Cost(s) and expenditures

It is possible to purchase curcumin products containing 95% curcumin over the internet, at about US$12 to US$36, depending on the dose (between 400 and 600 mg) and the amount of capsules (ranging from 60 to 180).


Klara Rombauts, Liene Dhooghe, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Curcumin [online document]. http://cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Herbal-products/Curcumin. May 7, 2014.

Document history

Summary fully revised and updated in April 2014 by Klara Rombauts.

Summary first published in May 2012 authored by Klara Rombauts and Liene Dhooghe.


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