Planting the Seeds to Cure Cancer
Stroll down any grocery store isle in America and you will find the green leafy vegetable known as kale. Some put it in smoothies and salads, some use it as a garnish, and others avoid it altogether. Love it or hate it, this unassuming plant may be the very thing that could save your life one day.
Could plants provide a cure for cancer?
Most research that is done on plants is preventative, but what Belhaven Professor of Biology Dr. Elizabeth Brandon and her team of students are finding could be the foundational research toward a breakthrough in the fight against cancer. By using cells as a simple screening tool, they are identifying plants that might have medicinal value and could be further explored by scientists.
Believe it or not, plants are already being used for modern cancer treatments. Taxol, extracted from the Pacific Yew tree, is one of the most popular and effective modern anti-cancer drugs. It was discovered by chance in the 1960s and found to impair cancerous cell division. There are thousands of species of plants that have never been researched, many of which may have great potential as treatments for disease.
We know that in nature, at least in the plant-world, there are thousands of possibilities for medicines. People have been using plants to eat and prepare topical agents, teas, or different types of extracts to treat diseases for years.
Research for a cure must start somewhere, and Belhaven researchers are finding preliminary data that shows a low concentration of kale juice can actually kill a type of liver cancer cell. They are also discovering how some whole plant extracts are slowing the growth of other cancer cells.
Scientist who are doing natural product research focus on the actual compounds that could have some anticancer effects. “They do this based on what is already known about the compounds that interfere with cancer cell division or DNA replication,” noted Dr. Brandon. “They try to isolate the molecules that have similar structures and then test out these chemicals individually on the cancer cells.”
The Belhaven team’s approach is a little different. They are using these chemicals in their natural forms. “We are studying the effects of whole forms rather than trying to isolate bioactive compounds to discover potential drug therapies.”
The experiments begin with growing cancer cells in petri dishes. Dr. Brandon and her team then make different extracts and whole juices, or ethanol extracts from boiling the plants. They add those extracts to different variations of cancer cells and noncancerous cells.
... a low concentration of kale juice can actually kill a type of liver cancer cell
“We have to pair cancerous cells with the same type of cells that are noncancerous to try to understand the mechanism by which the chemicals in kale juice work,” said Dr. Brandon. “If we see that both kinds of cells are killed by a whole juice or a plant extract, then we move on to the next plant.”
... our data suggests that certain extracts of Mimosa Tenuiflora have cytotoxic effects on cancer cells.
Kale isn’t the only plant yielding interesting results. One of the compounds being researched is derived from a species of shrub native to South America, called Mimosa Tenuiflora. “Mimosa bark has been used for thousands of years as a remedy for several ailments and has very little scientific literature regarding its medicinal properties, and no known literature investigating its anti-cancer properties,” said Lawrence Mason, a junior biology major from Cleveland, Ohio.
“The research we are conducting is significant due to the fact that we are working with natural products of which there is no known anti-cancer literature, and we are gathering data that is new to the scientific community. In fact, our data suggests that certain extracts of Mimosa Tenuiflora have cytotoxic effects on cancer cells,” observed Mason.
Liver cells aren’t the only type of cell being researched and tested. The team is now growing a breast cancer cell line, called MDA-MB436. They will treat the cells with low concentrations of kale juice extract to measure any cytotoxic effects. They have also conducted the kale experiments on colon cancer cells. The effective concentration that was toxic for liver cancer cells was not toxic for their colon cancer cells.
This process of trial and error is paving the way to new discoveries and giving researchers a way to document these largely undocumented experiments. When the research team finds certain plants that kill or slow the growth of cancer cells, they make that information available to the public.
The research we are conducting is significant due to the fact that we are working with natural products of which there is no known anti-cancer literature, and we are gathering data that is new to the scientific community.
“Since we are the first to research the anti-cancer properties of the Mimosa Tenuiflora plant, it will be important to publish our data in an effort to gather attention from other researchers,” Mason noted. “Our data will be publicly available, and we hope that other scientists will be able to add to what we have found.”
Other researchers who have the ability to carry out animal studies will build-on the provided information and identify new applications for these plants.
Dr. Brandon explains, “Effects in cell cultures are totally different from effects in whole animals so we can’t extrapolate the results we get in petri dishes to what we might see in a whole animal. The easiest type of research to do animal studies with are those in which a plant extract is applied topically. These experiments are very straight forward and they are not invasive for the animals, and so they are not harmful. They don’t require the use of many animals so they are easy to get approved by an internal review board.”
... plants were created to contain helpful chemicals, helpful not only for the survival of the plants but also helpful for humans
Dr. Brandon started this research about 10 years ago when a student, interested in working with kale juice and its effects on melanoma cells, gave her the idea. Since then, she and other friends and students have studied kava, mimosa bark, green tea, pomegranate, blueberries, and many other plants.
“I think it’s a different way of looking at food,” adds Dr. Brandon. “We know that in nature, at least in the plant-world, there are thousands of possibilities for medicines." People have been using plants to eat and prepare topical agents, teas, or different types of extracts to treat diseases for years.
"I see this kind of research as of a way of discovering new applications for some of the foods that we already regularly consume. I think that the way plants were created to contain helpful chemicals, helpful not only for the survival of the plants but also helpful for humans to eat and use as medicines, is an important area of research.”
Getting students involved in this groundbreaking research is one of the things Dr. Brandon loves most about this project. “We are teaching students to conduct real scientific research that has a significant impact in the world of medical research. We are teaching students how to do experiments, how to design experiments, but they are also involved in a novel type of research.”
Mason adds, “Performing laboratory research with Dr. Brandon has been an amazing experience. It has provided first-hand exposure to the nuances of cancer biology research, and has driven me to actively pursue a career in cellular research. Learning how the steps of the scientific method apply to cancer cell research has sharpened my scientific senses and has helped me understand the importance of science in regard to the betterment of society at large.”
After he graduates from Belhaven, Mason wants to pursue a Ph.D. in a biochemical science. “I would like to use my knowledge and strengths to research natural products and their possible medical applications. My career of choice would be in the field of cancer biology.”
We are teaching students to conduct real scientific research that has a significant impact in the world of medical research.