Turmeric, the main ingredient in curry, has had a reputation for being a "holy powder" with healing powers for centuries in India. From its anti-inflammatory effects to its ability to slow bleeding, there's a long list of ailments for which turmeric is a remedy, and a growing pile of evidence shows that cancer is on that list, too. In a study due to be published on Thursday, researchers at UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center describe how curcumin, the primary component of turmeric, effectively changes the molecular behavior of human saliva and slows the growth of mouth cancer. Previous studies have shown that cumin is effective in treating various types of cancer, and with the new knowledge, scientists hope to turn curcumin into part of the cure.

The UCLA team first found evidence of curcumin's cancer-fighting effects in 2005 and have been studying the exact effects since then. This latest study sampled the saliva of 21 subjects who suffer from head and neck cancers before and after they chewed on curcumin. Lab results showed that the compound activated cancer-fighting enzymes in the subjects' saliva. The discovery could shed light on other research that shows how turmeric boosts the effects of chemotherapy and helps slow cancer growth in other parts of the body like the colon and ovaries in women. Simply eating turmeric isn't enough, explained lead researcher Dr. Marilene Wang. The compound needs to be concentrated in supplement form to show any real effects, but researchers are hopeful.

"We believe curcumin could be combined with other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation to treat head and neck cancer," said Wang. "It also could perhaps be given to patients at high risk for developing head and neck cancers--smokers, those who chew tobacco and people with the HPV virus--as well as to patients with previous oral cancers to fight recurrence." 

Don't tell Michele Bachmann about the HPV detail.