The Indian long pepper (Piper longum) is rarely found as an ingredient in Western cuisine, but its use in Indian and southeast Asian fare goes back thousands of years. But it's the spice's remarkable medicinal qualities that are grabbing the attention of Western scientists today.

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center investigated the pepper's long-heralded anti-cancer properties, and discovered a curious link to a chemical called Piperlongumine, which has been shown in other studies to work against many cancers, including prostate, breast, lung, colon, lymphoma, leukemia, primary brain tumors, and gastric cancer, reports MedicalXpress. The researchers' work was published in The Journal of Biological Chemistry.

The real breakthrough in the research was made possible due to X-ray crystallography, imaging technology that shows how the chemical is transformed and put to use by the body after being ingested. First, Piperlongumine converts into hPL, a drug known to silence a gene called GSTP1. That's important because GSTP1 produces a detoxification enzyme that's often overly abundant in tumors.

A promising cancer treatment

The mechanism is certainly not a cure for cancer, but it could show promise as an isolated drug for use in cancer treatments. It demonstrates the importance of preserving medicinal knowledge from traditional practices.

It's also vindication for Ayurveda medicine, which dates back thousands of years in India and includes the long pepper as a sought-after ingredient in many remedies. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates even referred to the long pepper in his study of Ayurveda. The ingredient is also used as a simple spice in many stews and other dishes.

"This study illustrates the importance of examining and re-examining our theories. In this case we learned something fundamentally new about a 3,000-year-old medical claim using modern science," said Dr. Kenneth Westover, one of the researchers on the study.