Teddy’s retirement from the blog has cut down on the number of PAINS-shaming posts, and truth be told there are so many candidate papers that they could easily swamp fragments, which I suspect would drive away most of the readership. That said, I did want to highlight an exhaustive Perspective about a particularly diabolical natural product just published today in J. Med. Chem. by Mike Walters and collaborators at the University of Minnesota, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and the University of Illinois (and also covered in a news story in Nature.)
We’ve previously discussed some of the types of artifacts that can plague small molecule screens: aggregation, covalent adducts, redox cycling, fluorescence, photoreactivity, and more. Curcumin is a jack of all trades in that it is capable of all of the above. It’s also unstable even at neutral pH, and can decompose into other reactive species. It is the quintessential chemical con artist: if you have an assay, curcumin will probably be active in it.
The new paper is a thorough investigation (18 pages, with 164 references) of the chemistry and biology of curcumin, covering in gruesome detail all the many ways it can deceive. After discussing the history and physicochemical properties (and liabilities), several literature case studies where curcumin is proposed as having biological activity are explored and thoroughly demolished; one of these has been retracted but continues to be cited uncritically years later.
One might expect that something which hits so many assays would be toxic. This turns out not be the case: curcumin is present at 1-6% in tasty turmeric and only seems to show any adverse events at very high doses – several grams per day. The reason, the researchers show, is that curcumin’s pharmacokinetics are lousy, with oral bioavailability of less than 1%. This is a very literal example of the cliché “garbage in, garbage out.”
Sadly, these properties have not dampened interest in testing curcumin in people. The researchers identify 135 registered clinical trials, only eight of which have reported study results, with 49 either recruiting or not yet recruiting. The few examples where results have been reported are not particularly encouraging.
Typing curcumin into PubMed pulls up close to 10,000 papers, with more than 150 published in J. Med. Chem. alone. Will this devastating exposé help? For honest and diligent researchers, it should serve as a flashing warning to be extremely careful with any data gathered using curcumin. Unfortunately, some in the scientific community may not care as long as they are able to pump out papers. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, at least one prominent curcumin researcher had to retract several papers because of questionable “data integrity”. And there may be still darker motives: type curcumin into Google and the top results are ads touting the stuff. There’s money to be made, and even more if you slap on some scientific lipstick.
And despite specific J. Med. Chem. author guidelines to be cautious about “interference compounds” and “provide firm experimental evidence in at least two different assays that reported compounds with potential PAINS liability are specifically active and their apparent activity is not an artifact”, the journal recently published a paper fully devoted to the synthesis and SIR of rhodamine derivatives, with no consideration of mechanism nor mention that they can be problematic. (Indeed, the researchers do not even bother to include detergent in their enzymatic assay!)
All of which is to say that it’s easy to publish crap. But hopefully now, more people will recognize it as such.