Researchers uncover anti-cancer properties of whole ginger extract

Jeremy Craig, University Relations – College of Arts & Sciences – Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Scientists at Georgia State University have found that whole ginger extract has promising cancer-preventing activity in prostate cancer. The first of its kind study looks at the anticancer properties of ginger as a whole, rather than that of individual compounds found in the plant.

The lab of Ritu Aneja, associate professor of biology, found that the ginger extract had significant effects in stopping the growth of cancer cells, as well as in inducing cell death in a spectrum of prostate cancer cells. The research appears online in the British Journal of Nutrition.

Most importantly, in animal studies, the extract did not show significant toxicity to normal tissues, such as bone marrow.

“We found very good tumor regression by up to 60 percent, and no toxicity whatsoever,” Aneja said. While much research has been performed on ginger’s anti-cancer properties, Aneja’s lab takes a more holistic approach when it comes to investigating the types of molecules involved.

“We believe that it is not any individual compound that is solely responsible for the extract’s anticancer properties,” Aneja said. “It’s an interplay of components that is synergistic.”

That makes it possible for scientists to use a much smaller amount of extract to take advantage whole ginger extract’s beneficial properties than would be required if a single chemical was used, Aneja said.

In looking at the data, a human would have to consume only about 3½ ounces of whole ginger extract in a daily diet to get the beneficial effects.

Aneja’s lab seeks to find natural, non-toxic ways to combat cancer using kinder, gentler drugs as well as plant compounds, as current approaches cause major and debilitating side effects.

When beneficial activities are discovered in plant extracts, it takes a lot of work to unravel what chemical compounds in the extract actually provide the preventative effect, or kill cancer cells. “Although it might seem easy to work with plant extracts, it is not so, because there are zillions of compounds and other complex derivatives in there, and we don’t know which ones are the good ones,” she said. Moreover, the compounds we are seeking to identify may be low in abundance, but they may be very important and cannot be disregarded.”

Aneja has mentored numerous undergraduate students in research. The research into whole ginger extract started with the work of a persistent, dedicated undergrad, Vibhuti “Simran” Sharma, now an environmental chemist for the Southern Company.

“I did a lot of background research, and found several published papers on ginger, but discovered that there was nothing much done on the whole extract, especially in prostate cancer — a slow growing, long-latency cancer amenable to chemopreventive strategies,” Sharma said. “Most of the literature focused on only one compound found in ginger.”

Aneja combines guidance with independent exploration to allow undergraduate students to learn on their own in a stimulating and motivational environment. Sharma learned more about techniques and protocols, and took it upon herself to turn three pounds of ginger into the extract for the study.

It was a process of trial and error for Sharma, as she initially had problems getting the extract to freeze dry.

“It turns from ice into a solid, but it kept going into a liquid,” she said. “It took me three weeks to get what I wanted.”

She experimented with prostate, breast and cervical cancer cells, and found that most cells responded well to the extract. Aneja’s lab took the research further in prostate cancer, and today, even though Sharma has graduated, she is still assisting Aneja’s lab, helping to make more whole ginger extract, for further fractionation and efficacy studies, that are ongoing.

“I never knew it could get so big,” Sharma said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s great being able to say that I was just an undergrad when I started this research, and now it’s being published just a year after I graduated. I take a lot of pride in it, but it would not be possible without the help from everyone in the lab.”

The research team included Prasanthi Karna, Sharmeen Chagani, Sushma R. Gundala, Padmashree C.G. Rida, Ghazia Asif, Sharma and Aneja from Georgia State University, and Meenakshi Gupta from West Georgia Hospitals in LaGrange, Ga. The research article, “Anticancer benefits of whole ginger extract in prostate cancer,” appears in the British Journal of Nutrition at The British Journal of Nutrition is published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Nutrition Society.