Scientist from UT Southwestern Medical Center has recently uncovered the chemical process behind anti-cancer properties of a spicy Indian long pepper plant called the long pepper, whose suspected medicinal properties date back thousands of years.

The secret lies in a chemical called Piperlongumine (PL), which has shown activity against many cancers including prostate, breast, lung, colon, lymphoma, leukemia, primary brain tumours and gastric cancer. Using x-ray crystallography, researchers were able to create molecular structures that show how the chemical is transformed after being ingested.

According to a study, PL converts to hPL, an active drug that silences a gene called GSTP1. The GSTP1 gene produces a detoxification enzyme that is often overly abundant in tumors.

Dr Kenneth Westover, Assistant Professor of Biochemistry and Radiation Oncology said, “We are hopeful that our structure will enable additional drug development efforts to improve the potency of PL for use in a wide range of cancer therapies.

This research is a spectacular demonstration of the power of x-ray crystallography. 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. X-ray crystallography allows scientists to determine molecular structures that reveal how molecules interact with targets – in this case how PL interacts with GSTP1.

This work is supported by the V Foundation for Cancer Research, founded by ESPN and legendary basketball coach Jim Valvano, The Welch Foundation, and the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas”.

The Indian long pepper contains a chemical that could stop your body from producing an enzyme that is commonly found in tumours in large numbers, according to the study in Journal of Biological Chemistry.

It dates back thousands of years in the Indian subcontinent tied to Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest medical systems.