WINDSOR, Ont. — Extract from Essex County dandelion roots dug out of local lawns by a University of Windsor scientist and his team of students make cancer cells “commit suicide,” according to early research so promising it earned one of four grants given Tuesday to local cancer researchers.
It’s an example of the kind of work that can be done locally to help cancer patients all over the world, officials said as they announced $250,000 in Seeds4Hope money. It’s also an example of the close collaboration between the academics at the U of W and the cancer doctors at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre.
Oncologist Dr. Caroline Hamm got the idea to look into dandelions after two leukemia patients refused their next course of tortuous chemotherapy, yet returned to the cancer centre not on stretchers, but with improved test results after a steady diet of dandelion tea.
Hamm contacted University of Windsor biochemist Siyaram Pandey. Two cases “were nothing, it could be coincidental,” Pandey said, recalling his early skepticism. But he did some preliminary research, got $6,000 in funding from the Knights of Columbus Council 9671, then set his students loose.
They meticulously dug up dandelion roots — thanks to Ontario’s pesticide ban, they didn’t have to worry about toxins — from U of W lawns, a field in LaSalle, Pandey’s yard and a yard belonging to one of the students, and applied the root extract they formulated to leukemia cells.
“There it did great, it did work,” said Pandey, who explained the leukemia cells effectively commit suicide within 24 hours. “It killed the cells very selectively; it only killed the cancer cells. The regular cells were not killed.”
The results were recently published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacy.
Pandey and his team — Hamm and students Pamela Ovadje, Sudipa Chatterjee, Carly Griffin and Cynthia Tragrants — are getting $60,000 over two years from the Windsor & Essex County Cancer Centre Foundation’s Seeds4Hope program.
“Here you have a non-toxic alternative to chemotherapy,” said John Dufresne, a retired U of W biochemist who administrates the program. Pandey’s research could lead to a product that could treat cancers resistant to chemotherapy drugs, he said. “It’s almost in a sense a naturopathic approach to cancer treatment and to me that’s very exciting.”
Hamm is leading her own research project funded with $70,000 over two years for a clinical trial testing the effectiveness of adding the drug carboplatin to chemotherapy for women with “triple negative” breast cancer, a form of cancer that is more deadly and hits women at a younger age.
John Hudson, a U of W biologist, is getting $60,000 to study whether an enzyme called Plk, that helps prevent genetic material being damaged when normal cells divide, plays a role when cancerous cells start dividing.
And U of W biochemist Bulent Mutus is getting $60,000 to examine how specific enzymes can be used to reduce cholesterol levels, thereby inhibiting breast cancer cell growth.
Pandey intends to use the money to discover the active component in dandelion root that does the job, test that component on mice with leukemia, and if that works, test the component in the lab on cancer cells extracted from cancer patients. If the results of all the experiments are positive, “the next step is to go to a clinical trial” that would require lots of funding from the Canadian Cancer Society or a pharmaceutical company.
This is the second year for the Seeds4Hope grants, intended to foster local research.
“It’s seed funding, so you get alot of bang for your buck,” said Margaret Williams, president of the foundation, which gets its money from local events and donations.
“After (Tuesday) we will have committed $500,000 to local cancer research, and we’ll have eight cancer research projects (involving 27 researchers) running simultaneously in this community.”
If any of the research pans out, the researchers will apply to the big-money funders for the hundreds of thousands of dollars required for clinical trials, Williams said.
“This is something I’m passionate about. I’ve had breast cancer twice, my mother had breast cancer at 50 also (and died from it),” said Williams, 68. “I am convinced I’m here because of the research that comes up with new drugs, new treatment.”