Food additives enhance taste and make the overall gastronomic experience more satisfying. Now, researchers from the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy have found that a compound called Bixin, which is found in a natural food additive, may also help prevent skin cancer.

Researchers said the compound prevents cancer cells from forming and for skin damage caused by ultraviolet radiation to occur.

"In the future, the compound, bixin, may be valuable in the prevention and treatment of human skin cancers." the press release reads.

In the past, scientists have recognized that a gene expression in the skin, regulated by a transcription factor called NRF2, have protective mechanisms against sunlight.

Study author Georg Wondrak is an expert at NRF2 transcription factor. He works to find small molecules, often in edible plants that can prevent skin cancer. In his investigations, he has found a compound that appears to activate the NRF2 network. He then called out to study co-author Donna Zhang to test whether that compound, Bixin, indeed have properties against cancer.

Bixin is a bright red-orange substance found in a natural food additive called annatto. Annatto is derived from the seeds of achiote fruit and is widely used in Latin America as a cooking ingredient in most dishes.

For the experiment, the researchers have exposed two groups of mice to UV radiation. The first group received Bixin via injection and the second group did not.

After the test, the scientists have found that the Bixin group sustained lesser skin damage from the sun compared to the other group.

The researchers iterate that Bixin does not kill cancer cells; rather it prevents cancer from actually developing. The substance makes the cells create protective antioxidants and repair factors.

Wondrak and Zhang think the study is compelling because Bixin is a nutritional substance, a food additive, yet it is able to cause significant health benefits.

In the future, the researchers would like to find out if Bixin causes the same positive effects on humans, as it did to mice subjects.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has hailed annatto as a safe food additive, thus, the researchers expect to carry out fewer series of testings in future clinical trials.

More studies on the effects of Bixin may also determine whether other food items with annatto may also protect skin from sun damage and prevent skin aging and cancer in humans.

The study was published in the journal Free Radical Biology and Medicine.

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