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Kayla Askey PharmD’20 awarded for research into plant extract’s toxicity to breast cancer cells

By Jenna Pizzi

Kayla Askey Kayla Askey PharmD’20 won first prize in the PharmD category last month at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sigma Xi Student Research Day for her research on a South African medicinal plant which contains extracts that are selectively toxic to breast cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells unaffected.

Askey’s research poster, presented at the April 13 event, outlined research into the use of extracts from a medicinal plant called Myrothamnus flabellifolius, which induced apoptosis of breast cancer cells. The extract causes the Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) cells to die within 72 hours after treatment without affecting the normal breast cells, according to the research.

“This award signifies the importance of this research and how novel this approach is,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Dr. Bela Peethambaran, who helped to guide the team, including Askey to study the impact of the plant.

Myrothamnus flabellifolius is known as the “resurrection plant” for its ability to shrink and appear dead in the dry season, but return its vibrant, green leaves after only a few minutes of water. Dr. Peethambaran, who started researching the impact of the plant on cancer cells several years ago, said she became interested in the clinical uses of the plant extract because of its traditional medicinal uses in South Africa, where oils from the plant or teas created from its leaves are used to treat everything from asthma and colds to back aches and kidney problems.

The current research team includes Dr. Peethambaran, Askey, Assistant Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Dr. Isabelle Mercier, Ashley Russell MPH’17, and Samantha Gilman PhSci’16. Previous students began studying the impact on cancer cells at USciences several years ago, examining the impact the plant extract had on acute myeloid leukemia cells. The research established a dose and time that would cause more than 50 percent inhibition of leukemia cells with the least effect on normal cells.

Dr. Peethambaran said the research moved to studying TNBC because of the cancer’s unique traits. Individuals with TNBC do not have the three receptors — estrogen, progesterone, and HER2 —­ found in most breast cancers, making the cancer more difficult to diagnose and treat without chemotherapy.

“A major challenge in treating TNBC is the poor prognosis and the toxic side effects of anti-cancer drugs because of their non-selective nature,” said Dr. Peethambaran. “Hence, our research will identify novel compounds that can be used for targeted anti-cancer treatment with minimal side effects.”

TNBCs account for approximately 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers and are often diagnosed at a later stage, meaning those with TNBC have an increased mortality rate, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“I got involved because I wanted to do research, but then I realized how important this was because there aren’t a lot of other treatments available for TNBC,” said Askey.

In the future, the USciences team plan to conduct additional research to isolate and identify the anticancer compounds present in the plant extract that are effective in selectively targeting the cancer cells. The compounds could then be used to develop anti-cancer treatments to complement existing therapy regimens for individuals suffering from TNBC.

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