Scientists have found that the talcum powder that we have been using since generations to soothe babies' diaper rash or freshen our faces helps in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells.
For the last 30 years, scientists have closely scrutinized talc particles and found dangerous similarities to asbestos. They had earlier said that talc is toxic and its particles could cause tumours in human ovaries and lungs, reported health portal Medical News Today.
However, a new study by researchers at University of Florida found that talcum power has the ability to stunt cancer growth by cutting the flow of blood to metastatic lung tumours - a cancer that starts somewhere else in the body and then spreads to the lungs.
The study, published in the European Respiratory Journal revealed that talc stimulates healthy cells to produce endostatin, a hormone that helps in treating metastatic lung cancer.
The researchers said talc is an exciting new therapeutic agent for a cancer largely considered incurable.
"We found, to our surprise that talc causes tumour growth to slow down and actually decreases the tumour bulk," said Veena Antony,a professor of pulmonary medicine.
"Talc is able to prevent the formation of blood vessels, thereby killing the tumour and choking off its growth. The tumours appeared to grow much slower and in some cases completely disappeared," she added.
About half of all patients suffering from metastatic lung tumors accumulate fluid around the surface of the lungs, a condition known as malignant pleural effusion.
"That fluid can press down upon the lung, impair the breathing of the patient and cause the patient to feel very short of breath," said Antony.
Pleural effusions indicate that the cancer has spread throughout the body and most patients die within six months.
To make life more bearable for these patients, doctors close the extra space between the lung and the chest wall, where the troublesome fluid collects.
The trick is gluing the two surfaces together. Talc is blown into the patients' chest cavity to irritate the tissue and create tiny abrasions. When the lung tissue heals, it becomes permanently adhered to the chest wall without impairing the patients' breathing.
The effects of the procedure, called medical thoracoscopy with talc pleurodesis, are immediate and last a lifetime, the scientists said. Talc was approved in the US for use in medical thoracoscopy in 2003.
Doctors have noticed that patients who undergo medical thoracoscopy with talcum powder live up to 18 months longer than expected. To figure out why, Antony compared lung fluid from 16 patients with malignant pleural effusions before and after doctors dusted their lungs with talc.
"We were surprised to find that talc has added benefits besides causing scarring and taking away the fluid that surrounds the lung," Antony said.
"The cells that cover the lining of the lung are stimulated by the presence of talc to produce a factor that inhibits the growth of blood vessels and kills the tumour cells," she added.