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Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2002 Jan;11(1):105-11.

Metabolism of the cancer chemopreventive agent curcumin in human and rat intestine.

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Medical Research Council Toxicology Unit, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 9HN, United Kingdom.


Curcumin, the yellow pigment in turmeric, prevents malignancies in the intestinal tract of rodents. It is under clinical evaluation as a potential colon cancer chemopreventive agent. The systemic bioavailability of curcumin is low, perhaps attributable, at least in part, to metabolism. Indirect evidence suggests that curcumin is metabolized in the intestinal tract. To investigate this notion further, we explored curcumin metabolism in subcellular fractions of human and rat intestinal tissue, compared it with metabolism in the corresponding hepatic fractions, and studied curcumin metabolism in situ in intact rat intestinal sacs. Analysis by high-performance liquid chromatography, with detection at 420 or 280 nm, permitted characterization of curcumin conjugates and reduction products. Chromatographic inferences were corroborated by mass spectrometry. Curcumin glucuronide was identified in intestinal and hepatic microsomes, and curcumin sulfate, tetrahydrocurcumin, and hexahydrocurcumin were found as curcumin metabolites in intestinal and hepatic cytosol from humans and rats. The extent of curcumin conjugation was much greater in intestinal fractions from humans than in those from rats, whereas curcumin conjugation was less extensive in hepatic fractions from humans than in those from rats. The curcumin-reducing ability of cytosol from human intestinal and liver tissue exceeded that observed with the corresponding rat tissue by factors of 18 and 5, respectively. Curcumin sulfate was identified in incubations of curcumin with intact rat gut sacs. Curcumin was sulfated by human phenol sulfotransferase isoenzymes SULT1A1 and SULT1A3. Equine alcohol dehydrogenase catalyzed the reduction of curcumin to hexahydrocurcumin. The results show that curcumin undergoes extensive metabolic conjugation and reduction in the gastrointestinal tract and that there is more metabolism in human than in rat intestinal tissue. The pharmacological implications of the intestinal metabolism of curcumin should be taken into account in the design of future chemoprevention trials of this dietary constituent.

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