Brain and Body

This Natural Food Additive Could Block Cancer Cells Better than Sunscreen, Scientists Find

February 4, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Open fruit of Bixa orellana, showing the seeds from which Annatto is extracted
Photo credit: Leonardo Ré-Jorge/wikipedia (GNU Free Documentation License)

But instead of rubbing on cream, we’d fight the sun from inside our bodies.

According to the World Health Organization, there are currently 132,000 malignant skin cancers and 2 to 3 million non-malignant skin cancers diagnosed across the world each year. Of course, we have sunscreen as a means of protection, but what if scientists could find something better?

A team of researchers from the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy have discovered some exciting properties in a natural food additive called annatto. It just so happens that these special properties have shown to block the development of certain skin cancer cells in mice — an exciting discovery.

According to WebMD, annatto is used as a coloring agent, but it was also used by ancient tribes as body paint and insect repellent. The natural additive contains a compound called bixin, which prevents the formation of cancer cells caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun.

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The scientists discovered bixin during tests to discover molecules to activate the Nrf2 pathway in the body, which helps strengthen human cells against exposure to carcinogens. After the discovery, the researchers began tests on mice and injected the animals with bixin.

The mice who were injected with bixin showed much less of a reaction to UV radiation than those who weren’t, so the researchers are confident that this supports the theory that it blocks the formation of skin cancer cells.

How does it work? The head of the study, Dr. Georg Wondrak, says the compound induces the production of protective antioxidants in cells and also encourages repair factors. Therefore, cancerous cells are prevented from forming in the first place, instead of having to be attacked after the fact.

"We only know that our compounds can protect against sunburn through a very interesting, novel mechanism. It helps cells to mount a stress response that protects them against skin damage by UV light - sunburn," Wondrak told Tucson News.

Ultimately, the scientists believe annatto could be a key ingredient in a new “super” sunscreen, but instead of rubbing a cream or spray on top of our skin, annatto would enable us to fight skin cancer from the inside out. Amazingly, the researchers believe these kind of treatments might be ready in just five years.

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"[I]f you suppress sunburn, you can prevent the formation of cancer. That's the rationale," he says.

Eventually, the foods we eat could have annatto added to them to make us as naturally skin-cancer-proof as possible. By consuming annatto, we could also be protected against skin damage and photoaging (premature aging of skin due to UV light) in addition to skin cancer.

Plus, surely no one would mind giving up the hassle of having to remember to apply and reapply sunscreen during a day at the beach. Bring on the annatto!

The research is published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine.

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