Azerbaijan International

Spring 2002 (10.1)
Page 62

A Cure For Cancer?
Studying the Medicinal Effects of Saffron

by Dr. Fikrat Abdullayev

In this issue, we've taken a look at Azerbaijanis living abroad who have made important contributions to the world of Azerbaijani music, art, dance and culture. This article, on the other hand, tells of an Azerbaijani in Mexico who is using his education and expertise to do mainstream research about the world's most deadly disease: cancer.


From ancient times, saffron (Crocus sativus L.) has not only been used as a spice for flavoring food like rice, but also to treat various human diseases. Folklore tells us that saffron has been used throughout the ages to treat the nervous system (insomnia, paralysis), the respiratory system (asthma, colds), the cardiovascular system (heart disease), the digestive system (stomach disorders, flatulence, colic), the genitourinary system and ailments such as scarlet fever, smallpox, gout and eye disease.

Since 1990, I've been carrying out research to determine if saffron can be used to cure or prevent cancer, which claims more than 5 million lives each year throughout the world, more than any other disease or cause of death.

Saffron is harvested from the dried, dark red stigmas of crocus flowers. Since its tiny filaments must be painstakingly harvested by hand, it's no surprise that it ranks as the world's most expensive spice. Worldwide, 50 tons of saffron are produced each year, for a total of about $50 million. Saffron is cultivated in Azerbaijan, France, Greece, India, Iran, Italy, Spain, China, Israel, Morocco, Turkey, Egypt and Mexico.

I began investigating the biological activity of saffron while working at New Jersey State University (Rutgers). In 1995, I received an invitation from the Mexican Ministry of Science and Technology (CONACYT) to work in Mexico. At present, I am working in Mexico City. Our laboratory cooperates with Azerbaijan's Institute of Botany.

After reviewing the prior test tube and animal studies using saffron as either a cancer preventive or cancer treatment, I found that saffron not only inhibited the formation of new cancers, but in many different types of studies also shrunk existing tumors. In addition, saffron at times appears to enhance the anticancer effect of chemotherapy.

These effects may be due to saffron's high concentration of molecules called carotenoids, which possess chemopreventive properties. Chemoprevention is defined as the use of synthetic or natural agents to block the development of cancer in human beings. Other carotenoids include beta-carotene and lycopene, which also have been shown to have chemopreventive properties.

Where does that leave us? At this point, comprehensive, in-depth studies still need to be conducted to define the mechanisms involved in the therapeutic properties of saffron, investigate the mechanisms involved in saffron cancer chemoprevention and determine the biologically active components of saffron. We also need to perform human studies to define the efficacy of saffron in cancer treatment and prevention.

Even if saffron does in fact have these therapeutic properties, its supplies are still limited and expensive. The scarcity and expense of obtaining large quantities of saffron may provide impediments for human chemoprevention and cancer treatment. Perhaps an indoor cultivation method will one day prove advantageous in achieving the highest quality of saffron and result in reducing its costs.

Dr. Fikrat Abdullayev has a Ph.D. from the Institute of Botany at the Azerbaijan Academy of Sciences and a doctorate in Biological Sciences from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev. He is currently head of the experimental Oncology Laboratory at the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City. Contact him at: Laboratorio Oncología Experimental, Instituto Nacional de Pediatria, Av. Insurgentes Sur, 3700-C, 04530 México D.F., Mexico. Tel: (525) 606-0002; Fax: (525) 506-9455; or


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