A team of US cancer scientists found in tests on mice that capsaicin could provoke apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in the cells behind human prostate cancer, the most common cancer among men in the United States.
According to the scientists at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, the tests showed the potential of repressing the growth of the cancer cells in humans.
"Capsaicin had a profound anti-proliferative effect on human prostate cancer cells in culture," said the institute's Soren Lehmann.
"It also dramatically slowed the development of prostate tumors formed by those human cell lines grown in mouse models," he said.
To conduct their test, the researchers fed the heat-generating alkaloid found in all types of chilis orally to mice. Lehmann said the dose was equivalent to a 200 pound (90 kilogram) man eating from three to eight of the ultra-hot habanero peppers three times a week.
The heat of habanero peppers registers up to 300,000 Scoville units, compared to a maximum of 5,000 Scoville units for jalapenos and 175,000 for bird chilis popular in Southeast Asia and Africa, according to the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University.
Lehmann's research team found that the capsaicin interfered with the cancer cells' ability to avoid apoptosis, which occurs normally in many tissues as they replace aged cells with new ones.
Cancer cells are able to mutate or change genes to avoid a programmed dying off.
The team found that the doses of capsaicin induced about 80 percent of prostate cancer cells to move toward apoptosis.