Curry and pandas have a perhaps surprising link with human health. It involves a class of chemicals called cathelicidin-related antimicrobial peptides. These chemicals are common in mammals, having been isolated in humans, monkeys, mice, rats, rabbits, guinea pigs, pigs, cattle, sheep, goats and horses—and now, pandas. Cathelicidins play an important role in the immune system, helping it fight off unfamiliar infectious agents.
In fact, a cathelicidin may be partly responsible for the popularity of curry and similar foods. One important source of the substance is the spice turmeric, which has been used for centuries in Indian cooking and is in yellow mustard. Turmeric is rich in a type of cathelicidin called cucumin. In addition to its immune benefits, curcumin is a natural anti-inflammatory that research suggests may help fight prostate cancer.
In laboratory mice, curcumin stopped the spread of prostate cancer by inhibiting the inflammation that is frequently characteristic of the disease. Not only that, but curcumin produces no side effects and is safe for most patients, meaning anyone diagnosed with prostate cancer can be recommended curcumin, even if there’s not yet any indication that the cancer is starting to metastasize.
Another type of cathelicidin, AM, was isolated from the blood of the giant panda late last year. In panda blood, cathelicidin-AM fights infections, including fungal infections, helping protect the endangered animals from some of the most common illnesses. The natural antibiotic and immune component appears to be effective against a wide variety of bugs.
Fortunately, researchers have already figured out how to produce synthetic cathelicidin-AM in the lab, so they can leave the 1,600 pandas remaining. Demand may be high pretty soon—rese3archers say not only does cathelicidin-AM fight even drug-resistant bacteria, it does so in a way that doesn’t encourage the development of further resistance, making the compound a superweapon in the arms race between people and disease.