A compound in garlic responsible for its distinctive aroma and flavor has been used to selectively destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy cells intact.
Researchers from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel used a two-step system for delivering the compound, called allicin, straight to the site of tumor cells in mice.
For years allicin has been touted as responsible for garlic’s benefits, such as its ability to kill bacteria and fight infection.
Allicin is produced by an enzymatic reaction when raw garlic is finely chopped or crushed. An enzyme called alliinase combines with a compound called alliin to produce it.
While promising for medical treatments, allicin breaks down rapidly and is highly unstable, which has presented obstacles to its medical use.
Weizmann researchers have solved both these problems by designing a delivery method that parallels the way allicin is synthesized in nature.
First, they developed a way to generate the enzymatic reaction responsible for allicin’s creation at the site of a tumor.
Then, to target the tumor, they took advantage of the fact that most types of cancer cells have receptors on their surface.
An antibody programmed to recognize the tumor’s characteristic receptor is chemically bound to the enzyme alliinase.
Once injected into the bloodstream, the antibody seeks out the cancer cells and lodges itself and its passenger enzyme onto them.
The researchers then inject alliin at intervals.
When it encounters alliinase, the resulting reaction turns the normally inert alliin molecules into lethal allicin molecules that penetrate and kill the tumor cells.
Successful in mice
Using this method, the team succeeded in blocking the growth of gastric tumors in mice.
Tumor-inhibiting effects were seen up to the end of the experimental period, long after the internally produced allicin was spent.
The researchers note that their technique could prove invaluable for preventing metastasis following surgery.
“Even though doctors cannot detect where metastatic cells have migrated and lodged themselves, the antibody-alliinase-alliin combination should chase them down and destroy them anywhere in the body,” says Weizmann researcher David Mirelman.