The disease is a death sentence, but the cure could be as close as the produce aisle.
Researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina have found that garlic can effectively kill the cells that cause glioblastoma, a brain cancer that is usually fatal within a year.
Dr. Narendra Banik, a professor in MUSC neurosciences, says this complex research springs from a simple premise: how to stop the cancer without harming healthy cells.
"In the disease, you want to kill the cells, but you want to protect others," Banik said Tuesday. "Our tests were to see how effective the compounds were."
Banik, Dr. Swapan Ray, also a neurosciences professor, and Arabinda Das, a post-doctoral fellow in the department, tested several organic compounds on cancerous cells.
Garlic was a natural to test, as folklore has long held that it had healing powers. Three organo-sulfur compounds they tested effectively stopped the cancerous cells, perhaps shedding light on the reason that civilizations as far back as ancient Egypt have sworn by the powers of garlic.
"This research highlights the great promise of plant-originated compounds as natural medicine for controlling the malignant growth of human brain tumor cells," Ray said. "However, more studies are needed in animal models of brain tumors before application of this therapeutic strategy to brain tumor patients."
Banik got interested in studying this particular strain of cancer after losing both his mentor and another friend to glioblastoma. He hopes that sometime — probably several years down the road — ways can be developed to prolong cancer sufferers' lives, and the quality of them.
Garlic, despite what Bram Stoker might have thought, isn't magic. Here's what happens: Cancer cells have a high metabolism, and need constant energy to grow. The garlic compounds used in the MUSC studies produced reactive oxygen species in brain cancer cells, essentially gorging them to death.
Banik says if tests are successful on animal subjects, the next step will be to test it on humans. Eventually, there could be a drug produced for U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval.
Until then, doctors say that folks who want to try garlic as a cancer inhibitor should prepare it properly. They suggest cutting and peeling a fresh piece of garlic and letting it sit for 15 minutes before eating or cooking it. That allows time for the plant to release the enzyme that produces these anti-cancer compounds.
For now, the MUSC researchers' work will continue, and their findings will be published next month in the American Cancer Society's journal, Cancer.