Capsaicin to the rescue: Chili pepper compound may help beat aggressive lung cancers

HUNTINGTON, W. Va. — It’s no secret chili peppers are synonymous with hot, spicy flavors. However, many may not know that if it weren’t for the compound capsaicin, chili peppers would taste like any other bland vegetable. Indeed, capsaicin is responsible for the chili pepper’s trademark spice. Now, a new study reports capsaicin may be beneficial for lung cancer patients too.

Researchers report a non-pungent synthetic analog made of capsaicin influenced lung cancer cells in a manner that made them more responsive to treatments. This is of particular note because small cell lung cancer is an especially aggressive variety of cancer with low survival rates.

Typically, doctors treat patients dealing with small cell lung cancer using a cisplatin-based combination chemotherapy. At first, this approach usually does a decent job of treating the cancer, but tumors often re-emerge within a year in a more treatment-resistant form.

“Irinotecan is the only FDA approved second-line drug for small cell lung cancer, but less than 3% of patients respond to it,” says research team leader Piyali Dasgupta, PhD, from Marshall University, in a media release. “Therefore, agents that improve the anti-cancer activity of irinotecan would be of great value to these patients.”

All the chili pepper power, without the heartburn?

Capsaicin has shown cancer-fighting promise in the past, but all the spiciness that comes along with it can cause nausea, stomach pain, and burning sensations in some people. Those side-effects won’t be an issue here, though. Researchers used a synthetic capsaicin analog (arvanil) which avoids triggering digestive side-effects instead of genuine capsaicin.

Study authors did not observe any growth-inhibiting activity and exposing two cisplatin-resistant lung cancer cell lines to arvanil. However, when scientists added another ingredient called irinotecan (SN38) to the mix, both substances together “greatly enhanced” the slowing down of cancer cell activity. Even better, irinotecan and arvanil appear to work together “synergistically.”

“Because arvanil enhanced the anti-cancer activity of SN38 in human small cell lung cancer cells, arvanil-based combination therapies may be useful for patients with relapsed small cell lung cancer cells,” Jamie Friedman, a former doctoral student in Dasgupta’s lab, concludes. “We hope that this work will pave the way for novel therapies for relapsed and cisplatin-resistant small cell lung cancer.”

The team is presenting their findings at Experimental Biology (EB) 2021, a virtual meeting of the American Society for Investigative Pathology.