Curcumin (diferuloylmethane), a yellow substance from the root of the plant Curcuma longa Linn., has been demonstrated to inhibit carcinogenesis of murine skin, stomach, intestine and liver. However, the toxicology, pharmacokinetics and biologically effective dose of curcumin in humans have not been reported. This prospective phase-I study evaluated these issues of curcumin in patients with one of the following five high-risk conditions: 1) recently resected urinary bladder cancer; 2) arsenic Bowen's disease of the skin; 3) uterine cervical intraepithelial neoplasm (CIN); 4) oral leucoplakia; and 5) intestinal metaplasia of the stomach. Curcumin was taken orally for 3 months. Biopsy of the lesion sites was done immediately before and 3 months after starting curcumin treament. The starting dose was 500 mg/day. If no toxicity > or = grade II was noted in at least 3 successive patients, the dose was then escalated to another level in the order of 1,000, 2,000, 4,000, 8,000, and 12,000 mg/day. The concentration of curcumin in serum and urine was determined by high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC). A total of 25 patients were enrolled in this study. There was no treatment-related toxicity up to 8,000 mg/day. Beyond 8,000 mg/day, the bulky volume of the drug was unacceptable to the patients. The serum concentration of curcumin usually peaked at 1 to 2 hours after oral intake of crucumin and gradually declined within 12 hours. The average peak serum concentrations after taking 4,000 mg, 6,000 mg and 8,000 mg of curcumin were 0.51 +/- 0.11 microM, 0.63 +/- 0.06 microM and 1.77 +/- 1.87 microM, respectively. Urinary excretion of curcumin was undetectable. One of 4 patients with CIN and 1 of 7 patients with oral leucoplakia proceeded to develop frank malignancies in spite of curcumin treatment. In contrast, histologic improvement of precancerous lesions was seen in 1 out of 2 patients with recently resected bladder cancer, 2 out of 7 patients of oral leucoplakia, 1 out of 6 patients of intestinal metaplasia of the stomach, I out of 4 patients with CIN and 2 out of 6 patients with Bowen's disease. In conclusion, this study demonstrated that curcumin is not toxic to humans up to 8,000 mg/day when taken by mouth for 3 months. Our results also suggest a biologic effect of curcumin in the chemoprevention of cancer.