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Hands-On Cancer Research Using a Foreign Plant

By Lauren Whetzel-Siburkis

two studentsWithin her first year as a biology student at University of the Sciences, JASJIT DHILLON BI’15 was already suited up in a laboratory conducting hands-on cancer research under the guidance of assistant professor of biology BELA PEETHAMBARAN, PhD.

Little did Dhillon know, the plant which her research surrounded has the potential to provide valuable insight into the world of cancer research. That’s because Myrothamnus flabellifolius—a plant typically used in drought tolerance research—also offers healthcare advantages that have not yet been explored.

“Research bridges the gap between what I’ve learned in the classroom and what I’ll eventually be practicing in my career,” said Dhillon, who plans to become a doctor. “Although a career as a doctor is completely different than that of a researcher, I hope that some of my critical-thinking skills I have developed during my research will follow in my career path.”

The idea to use this plant for cancer research generated after Dr. Peethambaran’s collaborator from Villanova University traveled to South Africa and brought back a plant for her to use at USciences. While this plant is commonly known for its ability to fully recover after being dried for several months, in its native land it has been used as an ethnic traditional medicine to treat a variety of conditions such as asthma, colds, backaches, strokes, and kidney problems.

“Current anticancer drugs attack both cancerous and noncancerous cells, ultimately causing patients to experience severe and unwanted side effects,” said Dr. Peethambaran. “This research takes critical steps toward determining if extracts from the plant M. flabellifolius, can be used as a complementary medicinal to help prevent the unnecessary side effects commonly seen in current treatment regimens.”

quotePrevious studies in leukemia, breast cancer, and lung cancer cells have shown that polyphenols from plants are toxic to cancer cells; and extracts from M. flabellifoliusare rich in plant polyphenols that have been previously shown to have antiviral properties. Dr. Peethambaran said their research might add significant and valuable information to the global cancer knowledge base as the potential of these edible plants to selectively kill leukemic cells has never been studied.

Dr. Peethambaran said her team’s pilot studies have shown that extracts from M. flabellifolius can selectively constrain the growth of leukemic cancer cells with minimal effects on noncancerous cells. The research team—which also included SABRINA BRUNOZZI BI’15, ABEER BADIAB MS’15, and JACK CARTER PhD’15—established a dose and time that would cause more than 50 percent inhibition of cancer cells with the least effects on normal cells. These pilot studies were funded by the Ruth Estrin Goldberg Memorial Cancer Research Foundation last year.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 14,500 men and women are expected to be diagnosed with leukemia in 2013, and nearly 11,000 individuals will die from the disease. “These alarming figures show a dire need for increased cancer treatment options, as well as alternative ways to complement existing therapies,” Dr. Peethambaran said. “As for now, my research team is continuing to study this plant in greater detail, in hopes we might find the various bioactive compounds that contribute to the selective anticancer effect.”

For more on the exciting research conducted at USciences, click here.

Categories: Research Project, News, Feature Story, The Bulletin, Biology, Department of Biology, Research