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Bitter-sweet news for pancreas

18 March 2013

New things can be exciting. By its nature a new thing is unknown and therefore has unlimited possibilities. Take relationships, for example. A new relationship is often talked about by the participants in glowing terms, often predicted as “the” one, because it’s parameters haven’t been defined by experience yet. Finding new life in “outer space” is an exciting prospect because we don’t know what it will be like. There is infinite promise in the unknown but it is a mirage just waiting to be dispelled by reality. The excitement of finding “new” life in the cosmos will be mitigated if, in time, the life form proves to smell like sewage left in the sun, move like The Wiggles on fast-forward and feed on hair follicles.

The other problem with going into raptures over the new is that you neglect the virtues of the old. Your “old” relationship can contain just as many surprises as a new one, the difference being that you already know the basic package from which those surprises can arise. The same principle applies to medicines and foods: some of the ones that have been around for centuries have proven benefits. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have more to offer. This has been illustrated in a new study showing that the vegetable “bitter melon” can help prevent pancreatic cancer.

Bitter melon (Momordica charantia) is a gourd-like fruit that grows in tropical areas, including parts of the Amazon, East Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. It is a climbing annual vine with long-stalked leaves, yellow flowers and fruit that looks like a warty gourd, usually oblong and resembling a small cucumber. The young fruit is emerald green, turning to orange-yellow when ripe. At maturity, the fruit splits into three irregular valves that curl backwards and release numerous reddish-brown or white seeds encased in scarlet arils. All parts of the plant, including the fruit, taste very bitter, and all parts have been used medicinally in one culture or another.

Probably the most famous recent use of bitter melon has been to lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. It has even been suggested that bitter melon can protect the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. So it may not be a total surprise then that a new study has found that bitter melon may protect against pancreatic cancer.

This new research was prompted by two facts. Firstly, type 2 diabetes tends to be associated with an increased risk of pancreatic cancer. Secondly, previous research has shown that bitter melon extract will kill breast cancer cells in the laboratory. So would bitter melon have an effect on pancreatic cancer?

The researchers found that mice fed bitter melon juice were 60 per cent less likely than other mice to develop pancreatic cancer. They also found that the way the juice does this is to stop the glucose metabolism pathway in cancerous pancreatic cells and activate an enzyme called AMP-activated protein kinase, thus depriving the cancer cells of energy and causing them to die.

Bitter melon is not a new medicine. It has been used medicinally for hundreds of years. It should also be noted that some of its use centres around uterine stimulating effects, which means it should not be used by pregnant women. However, this old medicine is yielding answers to the new plague of diabetes and is yielding other new benefits besides. It is a reminder that we should never get so enamoured with the glitter of the new that we forget to find the value in the old.