PLAINVIEW — Science students at Wayland Baptist University are in a unique position among their peers and that has led them to a series of projects that not only are helping preserve centuries of traditional natural health treatments but also are beginning to show promise in breast cancer research.
Over the past several years, chemistry and biology students at the university have been working with a variety of plants and the impact they could have on treating breast cancer. In particular, they are working with the 4T1 breast cancer cell line, which is a mouse cell line, according to senior chemistry and molecular biology student Taylor Eaves. Eaves is from Phoenix, Ariz. and recently completed his Honors Program thesis project which involved research with rosemary. Other students are working with ginger and bloodroot.
According to Dr. Gary Gray, professor of chemistry and Eave’s project advisor, the 4T1 cell line made sense for the university. The cells grow in culture easily and are well suited for work by undergraduates, they are safe to handle and they represent a good system for conducting research.
“You can inject the cells into the host mouse and tumors grow as if the mouse has cancer, and the beauty of that is that it’s a perfectly set clock,” Gray said. “You inject the cells; you’ll have a palpable tumor with three to five days; within two weeks you’ll see the metastatic progression of the cancer; and it follows the same landmarks, but in a much shorter time frame, as human breast cancer does. So, it’s a nearly perfect model of stage-4 cancer, the advanced stage that no longer responds to hormone therapy and is basically out of control.”
Dr. Adam Reinhart, professor of biological sciences and chemistry, explained that the direction of the university’s research was driven by two things. The first, he said, was the student research component.
“We’re in a unique position at Wayland not to have to do research just to further my career along,” he said. “The reason we do research here is to really help students learn how to do science. So that, in many ways, is why we picked these projects. They’re very well adapted to having students do the work.”
The other driving force was a concern over the fear that centuries of knowledge about natural medicine could be lost if researchers do not begin working to preserve it.
“We’re within a generation, probably, of having most of that knowledge lost because as more modern medicine starts to be available (in Third-World regions) the people that have had a long history of working with medicinal plants have started to lose that. They’re not passing it on to their kids,” Reinhart said.
Wayland has a certified degree program in Kenya and regularly sends professors to teach a variety of classes. Reinhart spent a sabbatical in 2007 teaching at the Kenya campus and it was through that experience that he truly began to see the potential for student research projects on the main Wayland campus in Plainview.
“The project came about in about 2005 when I was really looking for a project that could involve a bunch of students that also had something where we could get some meaningful results,” he said.
As he spent his time in Kenya, he explained, the students there were responsible for collecting different kinds of native medicinal treatments that they would use to treat various kinds of inflammation.
“We were already starting to look at some plant extracts with the possibilities of them killing cancer cells,” Reinhart said, adding that at first researchers were looking at prostate cancer because there is a plant in Kenya — Prunus africanum, or African plum — that has been used historically for treating swelling of the prostate and also had the possibility of treating prostate cancer.
From there, the research moved to other types of cancers and as students took on the initiative one suggested that they consider the mouse cell line.
In particular, the students are looking at plants that have been known to affect inflammation because often cancer cells have elevated inflammatory responses, Reinhart said.
“There is an enzyme called COX-2 (Cyclooxygenase-2) that seems to be at a higher level in a lot of cancer cells. So, we started looking at drugs that were anti-inflammatories and tried to look to see if they also had anti-cancer possibilities. That’s what led to all this,” the professor said, adding that the breast cancer research project is funded, in part, through a $25,000 per year grant to the chemistry department from the Welch Foundation in Houston.
From that beginning, students who come through the program have had the opportunity to advance the long-term projects through research they can do during their time at the university. For Eaves, the choice of which project to work with was based on time constraints. He is a part of the university’s Honors Program and as such, must complete a thesis project. When it was determined that his initial choice was going to require more semesters of work than he had available, he was able to pick up on a branch of the research with Rosmarinus officinalis (rosemary) that had been started but not completed.
Eaves said researchers already had determined that rosemary was killing cancer cells, “and we wanted to determine how they were doing it.”
He spent the spring doing a literature search and began his research in the fall. He chose carnosic acid and ursolic acid as standards because the literature search showed that those were killing cancer. They had been used on skin and oral cancers, but never on breast cancer. He began to look at them in relation to that and in the course of his work found two components, tentatively named Band 5 and Band 8, which were effective at killing cancer cells. Through using thin-layer chromatography, high performance liquid chromatography and ultraviolet visible spectrum tests, he was able to determine that Band 8 most likely was carnosic acid. However, he was not able to identify Band 5.
“It didn’t match any of the standards and, in fact, it just kind of did its own thing but it was killing the cells, just like Band 8,” he said.
Gray explained that the critical part of the research is determining how the compounds kill the cancer cells. That is important because the process needs to result in programmed cell death, not necrosis which is simply the poisoning of the cell and is indiscriminant.
“If the cell death is caused by a simple poisoning process, we call that necrosis, that’s not useful as a drug because that means it’s going to kill anything,” he said, adding that the students want to isolate the compounds that only kill cancer cells.
He explained that all cells eventually go through a process of programmed cell death as they age. Parental cells divide to produce daughter cells, but eventually “the machinery wears out” and the parental cell will basically initiate its own death process. The idea is to use the compounds from the plants the teams are researching to induce cancer cells to initiate that self-destructive process.
Gray said the beauty of the research is that it is using plants that are safe for normal, healthy human consumption.
“These are plants that were used as food sources: Rosemary, ginger, turmeric — turmeric is used to make mustard, it is the yellow color in mustard — so these are plants that have been eaten for millennia, in some cases, and have no known bad effects to anybody, unless they just happen to be that one person who happens to be allergic to them,” Gray said, adding that the science department is not aware of any clinical studies that show the spices, in particular, have any bad effect on normal healthy cells.
Gray said the university has created a very workable template for examining potential plants for their cancer-fighting potential. At this point, for the most part, the students are now able to run plants through that template and make the appropriate determinations. Other plants that have showed promise are ginger and bloodroot.
The research teams are made up of biology and chemistry students who handle different aspects of the projects as their discipline allows. Joining Eaves in the research work are Libby Saultz, Jarrett Ross and Trevor Burrow.
Saultz is a senior molecular biology major from Amarillo who is the lead student researcher for a team working on one of the projects that is looking at how Zingiber officinalea (ginger root) and Sanguinaria Canadensis (bloodroot) are impacting the 4T1 cell line. Saultz said working together with other research groups is beneficial to their overall education.
“The chemistry students are in on it and the biology students,” Saultz said. “We work together and will be here (in the lab) until late hours of the night and see each other’s results and get excited.”
Eaves’ said the next step for the team will be to identify Band 5 and determine exactly how the compounds are killing the cancer cells. That work will be for someone else, though, as Eaves is set to graduate.
Gray said that the hope of he and his colleagues in the School of Mathematics and Sciences is that the students will find a new cancer-fighting tool through their work and Reinhart said the reality is they may have already. When asked what the chances were that Wayland students could find something that gets the attention of the greater scientific community he was quick with his answer.
“I know we already have,” he said. “We have presented this work at a number of national meetings and had very good discussions with people doing human cancer research. We’re pulling molecules out of ginger root. We don’t know what they are yet, but it’s pretty clear that their not the standard ones that people have worked with.”
Ultimately, that kind of positive professional exposure is what the school wants for its students. Reinhart pointed out that in most undergraduate programs the students do fairly routine work that rarely makes it beyond undergraduate level presentations. Wayland’s students are getting much better exposure than that, he said.
“We’re able to take students and go to national meetings and present this work, not in an undergraduate category, but in the open format where people all over the world will see it,” he said. “A long-term impact on our students has been the success they have enjoyed in graduate school and medical school. These experiences have given them a leg up on getting into post-graduate work.”