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Georgescu, S.; Sârbu, M.; Matei, C.; Ilie, M.A.; Caruntu, C.; Constantin, C.; Neagu, M.; Tampa, M. Capsaicin and Cancer. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 09 December 2023).
Georgescu S, Sârbu M, Matei C, Ilie MA, Caruntu C, Constantin C, et al. Capsaicin and Cancer. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed December 09, 2023.
Georgescu, Simona-Roxana, Maria-Isabela Sârbu, Clara Matei, Mihaela Adriana Ilie, Constantin Caruntu, Carolina Constantin, Monica Neagu, Mircea Tampa. "Capsaicin and Cancer" Encyclopedia, (accessed December 09, 2023).
Georgescu, S., Sârbu, M., Matei, C., Ilie, M.A., Caruntu, C., Constantin, C., Neagu, M., & Tampa, M.(2023, July 21). Capsaicin and Cancer. In Encyclopedia.
Georgescu, Simona-Roxana, et al. "Capsaicin and Cancer." Encyclopedia. Web. 21 July, 2023.
Capsaicin and Cancer

Capsaicin is the main pungent in chili peppers, one of the most commonly used spices in the world; its analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties have been proven in various cultures for centuries. It is a lipophilic substance belonging to the class of vanilloids and an agonist of the transient receptor potential vanilloid 1 receptor. Taking into consideration the complex neuro-immune impact of capsaicin and the potential link between inflammation and carcinogenesis, the effect of capsaicin on muco-cutaneous cancer has aroused a growing interest. 

capsaicin skin neurogenic inflammation cancer

1. Introduction

Various studies have suggested a potential pro-carcinogenic role of capsaicin use [1] further supported by the potential connection between inflammation and tumorigenesis. In some cases, pro-inflammatory cytokines/chemokines can trigger malignant transformation and tumor associated inflammation in turn can promote proliferation and survival of malignant cells [2][3].
However, other recent studies indicate more to a protective effect against various types of cancer via different pathways, mostly unrelated to TRPV1 [1][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11][12].

2. The Impact of Capsaicin on Muco-Cutaneous Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Muco-cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is one of the most frequent malignancies among Caucasians and its incidence has increased in the last decades, probably due to lifestyle changes and the increased proportion of aged populations [13][14][15][16]. Muco-cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is responsible for most deaths associated with non-melanoma muco-cutaneous cancer. It may generate major defects both aesthetically and functionally and require a complex therapeutic approach, depending on the stage of the disease and the general status of the patient [13][14][15][16][17][18]. For that reason, muco-cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma is an important public health problem and new therapeutic approaches are necessary [19][20][21][22][23][24][25][26][27].
The most important risk factors for the development of muco-cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma are fair skin type, chronic exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR), exposure to ionizing radiation, smoking, exposure to chemical carcinogens, human papillomavirus (HPV) infections and genetic predisposition [17][18][24][25][26][28][29][30].
Moreover, various studies have shown that neuroendocrine factors might play a role in the development of muco-cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma [31]. The release of CGRP and substance P, as well as other neuropeptides, from unmyelinated c-fibres and myelinated A delta-fibres of sensory nerves, a well-known effect triggered by capsaicin is also induced by UVR exposure and may contribute to induction of carcinogenesis [31][32]. CGRP has important vasodilatory effects on small and large vessels, potentiates microvascular permeability and edema caused by SP, enhances in vitro keratinocyte and melanocyte proliferation and is a potent immunomodulator [31][32][33][34]. By impairing the function of cutaneous macrophages and Langerhans cells, CGRP is a potent inhibitor of acute and delayed type hypersensitivity reactions [32] but also interferes with anti-tumoral immune response initiation [31].
SP is a member of the tachykinin family which has vasodilatory effects, induces protein extravasation, lymphocyte proliferation, chemotaxis, activates macrophages and promotes the secretion of interleukin 1 (IL-1), IL-6and TNF-α [31][32][35]. It has been associated with stress induced mast cell activation [36]. The effects of SP are mediated through NK-1R, which is widely expressed in the brain, skin, intestine, lung and immune cells [31][32]. There is some evidence that SP and NK1-R might be involved in the development and progression of cancer. Thus, SP has been associated with cell proliferation and migration in esophageal squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) [37], melanoma [38][39], retinoblastoma [40], neuroblastoma and glioma [41]. Brener et al. investigated the presence of SP and NK-1R in 93 oral SCC from 73 patients and concluded that the SP/NK-1R system might have a role in tumor development and progression [42]. Other authors studied the distribution of SP and NK-1R in esophageal SCC and found a higher density of SP positive nerve fibres and NK-1R expression in carcinoma cells, thus concluding that SP and NK-1R promote growth and migration of esophageal SCC cells [37]. Considering the evidence regarding the role of SP in the development of the disease some authors suggested that NK-1R antagonists might be useful in the treatment of oral cancer [42].
Taking into consideration the complex neuro-immune impact of capsaicin and the potential link between inflammation and carcinogenesis, the effect of capsaicin on muco-cutaneous cancer has aroused a growing interest. Since several reports indicated that the consumption of chili peppers might be associated with an increased risk of cancer [43], some authors studied the effect of long term capsaicin treatment. Toth and Gannett found that, after a lifelong diet with capsaicin, 22% of female mice and 14% of male mice had tumors of the cecum. In the control group only 8% of mice had cecum tumors [44]. Chanda et al. assessed the oncogenic potential of topical trans-capsaicin applied for 26 weeks in Tg.AC mice. The Tg.AC mice received trans-capsaicin dissolved in diethylene glycol monoethyl ether (DGME). Mice from the positive control group received tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) dissolved in DGME and controls received lidocaine. The authors found that topical capsaicin was not associated with an increased incidence of preneoplastic and neoplastic lesions as compared to the concurrent vehicle or lidocaine while the TPA treated mice had multiple skin papillomas. The authors therefore concluded that trans-capsaicin, lidocaine and DGME should be considered non-oncogenic [45].

3. The Effect of Capsaicin on Melanoma

Melanoma is a malignant tumor that arises from melanocytes; melanocytes are melanin-producing cells situated in the basal layer of epidermis, in uveal structures of the eye and in the meninges; of all possible sites, skin is the most frequent location of melanoma [24][25]. Even though melanoma is less frequent than most malignant cutaneous tumors (i.e., basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma), it has the most aggressive course, accounting for more than 75% of all skin cancer deaths. Melanoma can occur at any age but it is more frequent between 30 and 70 years; females are more frequently affected than males (male:female ratio 1:1.5) [25][26]. The incidence of melanoma has been on the rise worldwide in the last decades. Excessive ultraviolet radiation exposure (from both sun and artificial sources—e.g., tanning beds) especially under the age of 20, skin phototypes I and II (light skin pigmentation), genetic predisposition, increased number of melanocytic nevi and the presence of atypical nevi are the main risk factors for developing melanoma. Most melanomas occur de novo [27][46][47].
The treatment of melanoma varies depending on the stage of the disease. Surgical excision is the mainstay treatment for primary melanoma. Metastatic melanomas however require chemotherapy, immunotherapy or palliative treatment. These are usually associated with severe adverse reactions and low response rates [24][25]. Therefore, new drugs as well as new ways of investigating their efficacy have been elaborated [48]. The prognosis of patients with metastatic melanoma was improved after the introduction of BRAF(B-Rafenzyme) inhibitors (vemurafenib, dabrafenib), mitogen-activated protein/extracellular signal-regulated kinase kinase(MEK) inhibitors (trametinib) and immune checkpoint inhibitors (nivolumab, ipilimumab) [47][49].These therapies however are very expensive and are not available for all the patients [47][49].
Under these circumstances, there is a real need to identify new therapeutic targets in order to develop cheaper, but efficient, treatment options. Hence, the mechanisms behind the development and progression of melanoma were intensely studied and recent reports showed that neuro-endocrine factors might be involved [38][39][50][51]. Several studies have investigated the potential role of NK-1R and SP, one of the main neuropeptides involved in capsaicin-induced inflammatory reaction. A recent study performed on canine melanoma tissues and cell lines found that 11 of 15 tumors revealed NK-1R immunoreactivity [52]. The expression of SP in malignant melanoma and melanoma precursors was also studied and the authors showed that 68% of primary invasive melanomas, 40% of metastatic melanomas, 60% of in situ melanomas and 58% of dysplastic nevi express the neuropeptide [53]. SP and NK-1R are also involved in melanogenesis [54]. B16-F10 melanoma cells treatment with SP results in activation of NK-1R, phosphorylation of p70 S6K1, inhibition of p38mitogen-activated protein kinase(MAPK), down-regulation in tyrosinase activity and suppression of melanogenesis [55]. There is increasing evidence regarding the involvement of SP and NK-1R in melanoma cells proliferation [38][39][56][57]. For that reason, NK-1R is now regarded as a target in melanoma treatment and NK-1R antagonists are being intensely studied [38][39][56][57].
The direct role of capsaicin in the treatment of melanoma was investigated in several studies, as explained further [58][59][60][61][62][63][64][65][66][67][68][69][70][71]. Morré et al. studied the effect of capsaicin on nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide(NADH) oxidase activity of plasma membranes and cell growth of human primary melanocytes and melanoma cells (A-375 and SK-MEL-28 cell cultures) [58]. The authors found that capsaicin inhibits plasma membrane NADH oxidase activity preferentially in melanoma cells thus inhibiting growth and increasing apoptosis [58]. Brar et al. also showed in a study performed on human melanoma cell lines that reactive oxygen species produced endogenously from nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate-reduced(NAD(P)H):quinone oxidoreductase activate NF-κB in melanoma cells in an autocrine fashion and that capsaicin significantly reduces proliferation of melanoma cells [59].
In a study published in 2012, Kim aimed to explain the mechanism by which capsaicin induces apoptosis in melanoma cells [61]. The author therefore studied the role of nitric oxide (NO) during apoptosis induced by capsaicin and resveratrol on A375 human melanoma cells and found that NO stimulates p53 and induces conformational changes in Bax and Bcl-2 and activates caspases 3, 8 and 9. The authors concluded that capsaicin and resveratrol activate the mitochondrial and death receptor pathways [61].

4. Capsaicin’s Involvement in Carcinogenesis

A potential co-carcinogenic role of capsaicin has aroused the interest of various researchers. A study published in 2009, showed that TRPV1 interacts with the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and determines its degradation though the lysosomal pathway [72]. EGFR is a receptor tyrosine kinase with an important role in the development of the epidermis, which is overexpressed in many epithelial cancers. Using a skin carcinogenesis model with 7,12-dimethyl benz(a)anthracene (DMBA) and TPA in TRPV1−/− (knockout) and TRPV1+/+ (wild type) mice, authors have shown that TRPV1−/− mice developed significantly more skin tumors than TRPV1+/+ mice [72]. Moreover, to assess to role of EGFR in skin carcinogenesis, the authors performed the same experiment, except that some of the mice received an EGFR inhibitor; the scientists discovered that carcinogenesis was substantially more suppressed in TRPV1−/− mice, after EGFR inhibitor was administered [72].
Another study published in 2010 showed that topical application of capsaicin on the skin of TRPV1 wildtype mice and TRPV1 knockout mice, which were previously subjected to the two-stage skin carcinogenesis experiment with DMBA (9,10-Dimethyl-1,2-benzanthracene) and TPA, was associated with significantly more and larger tumors than TPA treatment alone [73]. TRPV1 knockout mice were more affected than TRPV1 wildtype mice. Mice treated with capsaicin alone however have not developed any tumors. These findings suggest that carcinogenesis has a TRPV1 independent mechanism. Further research revealed higher levels of COX-2(cyclo-oxygenase-2) in mice treated with capsaicin and TPA than in mice treated with TPA alone thus suggesting that capsaicin induces an increased COX-2 expression in the presence of TPA. COX-2 expression was increased in EGFR wildtype cells but not in EGFR knockout cells. The authors therefore suggest that capsaicin acts as a co-carcinogen through EGFR dependent mechanisms/pathways [73].
The link between capsaicin receptor and skin tumorigenesis was the subject of an experimental in vivo research which found that topical application of TRPV1-antagonist AMG9810[(E)-3-(4-t-Butylphenyl)-N-(2,3-dihydrobenzo[b][1,4] dioxin-6-yl)acrylamide]promotes tumor development in mice previously treated with DMBA. The levels of EGFR were also higher in these mice as compared to the control group. Moreover, the phosphorylation level of EGFR was significantly increased in AMG9810 treated mice compared to the control groups. EGFR phosphorylation activates the Akt/mTOR-signaling pathway which has an important role in tumorigenesis. It was therefore concluded that the TRPV1 antagonist induces carcinogenesis by activating the EGFR/Akt/mTOR signaling pathway [74].


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Subjects: Oncology
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Update Date: 24 Jul 2023