Areca nuts are chewed for their stimulant effects in many Asian countries, something that has been attributed to cases of mouth and throat cancer.
Arecoline has is an inhibitor of the enzyme ACAT1, which contributes to the metabolism-distorting Warburg effect in cancer cells.
Jing Chen, PhD, professor of haematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute, said arecoline could be compared to arsenic, a form of which is used as a treatment for acute promyelocytic leukaemia, but is also linked to several types of cancer.
Plus, arecoline's cancer-promoting effects may be limited if it is not delivered or absorbed orally, he says.
"This is just a proof of principle, showing that ACAT1 is a good anticancer target," Chen says. "We view arecoline as a lead to other compounds that could be more potent and selective."
The research is due to be published in the journal Molecular Biology.
While the researchers did not see obvious toxicity when treating mice with arecoline, more extensive pharmacokinetic and toxicology studies with arecoline and similar compounds are needed, Chen said.