TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - A common food coloring ingredient is showing promise as a cancer fighter.
University of Arizona researchers are studying the ingredient, called annatto, which can easily be found in the average person's kitchen.
Annatto is a natural food additive that gives cheese its yellow color.
It comes from the seeds of the achiote fruit.
The plant is from the Americas and has been eaten since pre-Columbian times.
UA College of Pharmacy Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology Dr. Georg Wondrak and Dr. Donna Zhang are members of the University of Arizona Cancer Center.
They're looking at a compound in annatto, called bixin, that can prevent skin cancer by preventing sunburn.
"The more sunburn you get, the more incidences of sunburn, the higher the frequency ... the incidence of cancer. So consequently, if you suppress sunburn, you can prevent the formation of cancer. That's the rationale," Wondrak said.
Thanks to the abundant sunshine in southern Arizona, Tucsonans have a high rate of skin cancer.
Wondrak's team first identified a pathway in the human body that helps protect its cells.
Now, in the early stages of their research, they think bixin might do something other than just make food look more colorful.
It might also enhance that protective pathway.
"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 said.
However, bixin and its possible cancer prevention properties might not be limited to skin cancer.
"We know that the molecular pathway engaged by these compounds, by bixin, is very important in the suppression of cancer in other organs, such as colon, liver maybe other organs," Wondrak said.
He said, if all goes well, his team could start testing bixin in people within five years.
Wondrak's hope is that eventually his team will be able to recommend the exact amount to eat that could protect them from some deadly diseases.
It could even be available in the form of a pill.