Pair of summer researchers discover potent plant extract

Release Date: September 25, 2009

PLAINVIEW – Kassie Hughes laughs when she recalls the moment her professor, Dr. Gary Gray, visited them in the lab to see their final analysis results.

“He jumped for joy, that’s for sure,” said the senior chemistry major at Wayland Baptist University.

“It took them a while to realize what they had done,” Gray said. “You just don’t see something that appears to kill (cancer) cells like this.”

Hughes and fellow student Asenath Arauza, a junior chemistry and molecular biology major, were participants in Wayland’s summer research program in chemistry, funded in large part by a grant from the Welch Foundation.

While they haven’t exactly discovered a cure for cancer, what Hughes and Arauza did over the summer months does have quite a bit of value both in terms of scientific research and in their own personal education and edification, Gray noted.

The pair technically started their research in the spring 2009 term after learning in November that they were chosen for the program. They spent the spring doing an extensive literature review once they chose a topic from the umbrella of choices they were presented.

They chose to follow a path started by May 2009 graduate Joanne Jacob, who had experimented with 12 different herbs and their effect on tumor growth in mice. One in particular had significant results in Jacob’s research, and the two coeds decided to further check out Ashwagandha, commonly known as Indian Ginseng and used by many to treat depression, inflammation and neurological disorders.

Using a powdered form of the root, Hughes and Arauza first rinsed it to remove any lipids, then ran a 6-hour process known as a Soxhlet to liquify the extract into a more usable form. Gray likened the process to a drip coffee maker, where heated water (or in this case methanol) runs through the extract and then back through repeatedly until it is complete.

Using thin-layer chromatography on glass plates, the team was able to separate the extract into various compounds. Through nearly 30 plates – a time-consuming process itself – the duo was able to identify one particular compound that was strong every time. They eluded the compound from the plate and tested it on 4T1 breast cancer cells grown in Petri dishes to determine how it would affect the cells. The results were astonishing.

“This was really annihilating the breast cancer cells,” noted Arauza, pointing to a chart of the results that showed the cell growth was dramatically reduced compared to even the full extract. “This one was very potent; none of the others were even close.”

The next step was to characterize the isolated compound at Texas Tech University’s lab, utilizing their mass spectrometer, a machine the WBU lab does not possess, to determine exactly what the size of the molecule is. A larger sample will be needed, however, to get a better reading and study using the Tech equipment.

The girls’ next plan is to repeat their entire research project to get a purer, larger sample and then run the cell culture test again before moving to the next stage, which is to inject the cancer cells in mice, then inject the compound and measure the results. They are excited about the next step, as is their faculty mentor.

“This raises all kinds of interesting questions since this appears to be different than the compounds that are already known,” Gray said. “If this turns out to be a unique plant steroid that just grows naturally and has this effect, this should be pursued. They’ve been eating this root for centuries, so we know it’s not a poison.”

In terms of the educational benefit of the summer research, both girls laughed that patience for the often tedious lab processes was a natural by-product. But there was more.

“This summer made more things make sense to me,” said Hughes, a Plainview native who hopes to pursue a career in the lab science field. “It makes the things you learn in classes really come together. We learned that you can actually use this stuff in real life.”

Arauza, a Moorhead, Minn., native focused on a career in optometry, agreed.

“It applies real-life applications and issues to the lab,” she said. “You sometimes fail, but you learn from it and go on. It’s neat to see how all the hours you put in could possibly lead to real results that help people.”