A compound found in green tea may trigger a process that kills oral cancer cells while leaving healthy cells alone, finds a promising study.
According to food scientists from Pennsylvania State University, the research could lead to treatments for oral cancer as well as other types of cancer.
Earlier studies had shown that epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), a compound found in green tea, killed oral cancer cells without harming normal cells.
“But researchers did not understand the reasons for its ability to target the cancer cells,” said Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science and co-director of Penn State’s Center for Plant and Mushroom Foods for Health.
The current study shows that EGCG may trigger a process in the mitochondria – the cells’ powerhouse – that leads to cell death.
“EGCG is doing something to damage the mitochondria and that mitochondrial damage sets up a cycle causing more damage and it spirals out, until the cell undergoes programmed cell death,” Lambert explained.
It looks like EGCG causes the formation of reactive oxygen species in cancer cells, which damages the mitochondria, and the mitochondria responds by making more reactive oxygen species, he said.
As this mitochondrial demise continues, the cancer cell also reduces the expression of anti-oxidant genes, further lowering its defenses.
“So, it is turning off its mechanism of protection at the same time that EGCG is causing this oxidative stress,” Lambert added.
The EGCG did not cause this reaction in normal cells. In fact, it appeared to increase the protective capabilities of the cell, according to the researchers.
The findings were reported online in the journal Molecular Nutrition and Food Research.