Scientists at Greek and foreign institutions studying the pharmaceutical applications of the Crocus sativus, the source of saffron, presented their findings in Athens recently at a conference organized by local authorities in Kozani, northern Greece, where the 250-year old crocus industry has been the subject of an extremely effective export drive. Research at the University of Patras into the benefits of the plant’s derivatives in the fight against breast cancer were among the more important findings presented at the conference. As yet, no clinical trials have been conducted in this particular field, but if research continues as successfully as it has to date, these could be imminent. Saffron’s anti-oxidant qualities have been known for some time. The action of its crocin and safranal ingredients is capable of protecting the human body from the action of free radicals that lead to cell damage and disease. Professor Moschos Polissiou of the Athens University of Agriculture opened the conference with a presentation of these anti-oxidant properties that protect and revitalize cells, help blood circulation in the brain, improve memory, restrict certain cardiovascular diseases and guard against the growth of cancer cells. Cancer prevention Petros Tarantilis, an associate professor in Instrumental Chemical Analysis of Natural Products, then went on to discuss the effect of carotenoids in saffron on cancer cells K562 and HL-60 extracted from patients suffering from leukemia. «The in-vitro study of the biological effect of saffron carotenoids showed that they restrain the proliferation of and at the same time differentiate the K562 and HL-60 cancer cells,» said Tarantilis. The results of new studies on the effect of the total compound extracted from saffron and trans-crocin 4 in the proliferation process of breast cancer, as well as its role in protection from Alzheimer’s disease, were presented by Fotini Lamari, a lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Patras. The study was the first on the effects of saffron compounds on breast cancer, as distinct from other types of cancer. «The results show that the extract reduces the proliferation of different types of cancer cells,» said Lamari, although she emphasized that the experiments were on cultivated cells in the presence of large saffron concentrations and that no clinical trials had yet been undertaken. «Therefore it is neither ethical nor scientifically correct to consider saffron as a drug against breast cancer,» she added. Alzheimer’s Lamari also referred to research carried out in Greece into the possible protective role of saffron against Alzheimer’s, a degenerative disease that affects a growing number of older people. Lamari referred to recent data that indicates that oxide stress – that is, the presence of a higher-than-normal amount of free radicals – causes changes that results in the buildup in the brain of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Lamari mentioned laboratory experiments on mice showing that saffron reverses loss of memory and cognition caused by ethanol. Saffron has also been shown to protect neurons from the oxidizing damage present in Parkinson’s disease, while clinical studies have indicated saffron may be used in the therapy of mild to moderate depression. Further research All the speakers at the conference were careful to stress that their research was still in the early stages, but were optimistic that further studies would be conclusive in favor of the plant’s therapeutic possibilities. «Comprehensive and in-depth studies needed to be conducted further, to determine the biologically active ingredients of saffron responsible for its anti-cancer effect,» said Fikrat Abdullaev of the National Pediatrics Institute of Mexico City. «(We also need to) carry out epidemiological studies on the effect of saffron against cancer, to investigate the molecular mechanism(s) involved (in those effects) and to define the efficacy and safety of saffron and its main ingredients in cancer prevention and treatment both in animals and in clinical trials. «Chemoprevention of cancer is the most challenging task in the 21st century and we need more knowledge regarding the relationship between natural products and the disease,» said Abdullaev. «Unfortunately, we have spent many years and much money focusing on cures for cancer, but focusing on prevention with natural anti-cancer agents would make it possible to win the war against this terrible disease.» Beneficial properties not lost in the cooking The Kozani crocus, Crocus sativus, was imported from Austria in 1736. The curative properties of saffron, which is the red pistil of the crocus flower, have been known since antiquity. The earliest reference to it is on an Egyptian scroll dated to 1550 BC. It was an essential component in the medicinal preparations of Hippocrates, Dioscurides and Galen, who recommended it as an analgesic, antipyretic, soporific, emmenagogue and aphrodisiac. Eating a lot of a particular food is not, of course, the same as being treated for a condition with an extract of a specific active compound that is used in a remedy. However, the beneficial properties of saffron are not lost in the cooking. According to Lamari, the laboratory animals used to test these properties were given saffron, which has the advantage of being water-soluble, in the form of an infusion or as food. «Some percentage of the active properties of substances such as carotenoids are lost when cooked for long periods at high temperatures,» Lamari told Kathimerini English Edition, but added that using saffron in the form of infusions, such as in beverages, would not destroy its benefits. The Athens conference was organized by the Region of Western Macedonia and the Cooperative of Crocus Producers of Kozani, which is based in a region of 35 villages where the crop is cultivated. Annual production varies according to climatic fluctuations but ranges from 5-7 tons. About 190 tons are produced each year around the world. An International Symposium on Saffron is to be held this coming October in Mashad, Iran, the country with the world’s largest commercial crocus crop.