(CN) – Spicy chiles can make the difference between a good curry and a terrific one and now researchers say the active ingredient found in salsa and other spicy foods may also slow down tumor growth.

While some chile lovers may crave the burning sensation of a spicy pepper with their meal, researchers say a compound in chiles has shown to gum up the spread of cancerous tumors.

Capsaicin, the compound that gives peppers their spicy quality, slowed down the spread of lung cancer according to a new study which was presented at the American Society for Investigative Pathology on Saturday by researchers from Marshall University in West Virginia.

Lung cancer can spread throughout the body if not detected soon enough, but in experiments involving human non-small cell lung cancer cells, scientists applied capsaicin and watched as it slowed down the metastasis process.

“Lung cancer and other cancers commonly metastasize to secondary locations like the brain, liver or bone, making them difficult to treat,” said Jamie Friedman, a researcher on the project at Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. “Our study suggests that the natural compound capsaicin from chili peppers could represent a novel therapy to combat metastasis in lung cancer patients.”

Meanwhile, mice with metastatic cancer that ate capsaicin showed little tumor growth compared to mice that did not receive the compound.

What’s more, capsaicin slows down the activation of the protein that activates the cellular process in the body, including the aggressive spread of cancerous tumors. Researchers said they hope they can find other compounds that have the same properties of capsaicin that don’t cause heart burn, stomach cramps or the burning sensation.

Professor Catherine Carpenter with the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition did not work with the team from Marshall University, but said their research offers a new direction for cancer research.

“Of course, you have to be careful that people don’t automatically assume that capsaicin can cure lung cancer,” said Carpenter, who read the study abstract.

Lung cancer is highly likely to metastasize and capsaicin seems to prevent the growth of blood vessels that allow a tumor to grow, Carpenter said.

Future research could investigate populations where people eat lots of spicy food to see if capsaicin is able to really make an impact on humans.

While it’s still too early to say what a capsaicin-rich diet can do to fight cancer, Carpenter said she sees the results of the study promising.

“There’s no harm in eating peppers,” said Carpenter. “If it’s not harmful, there’s no reason why someone can’t do that. But they have to have realistic expectations.”