Cancer cell 'suicide' aim of award-winning students

Pam and DanBiochemistry PhD student Pam Ovadje and third-year undergrad Daniel Tarade recently presented their research at the Natural Health Products Research Society annual conference in British Columbia and came home with top honours in the oral and poster presentation competitions.

Assisted suicide is topic guaranteed to court all kinds of controversy.

However one place where you’ll get general consensus on the matter is among the students working in the biochemistry lab of Siyaram Pandey, where rather than people, they help cancer cells commit suicide.

“One of the hallmarks of cancer cells is that they forget how to die,” says third-year undergrad Daniel Tarade. “We’re forcing their hand, and causing them to commit suicide.”

It’s a process known as apoptosis, and many of the students in Dr. Pandey’s lab experiment with a variety of natural health products to find out how they cause cancer cells to kill themselves.

Six of those students recently traveled to Kelowna, B.C., where they presented their research at the annual conference of the Natural Health Product Research Society of Canada. Tarade came home with $300 and first place honours in the poster presentation competition, while PhD student Pam Ovadje took first place in the oral competition, which included a $400 prize.

Tarade’s research focused on two compounds that are structurally similar to a natural compound called combretastatin A4, which is isolated from the South African Bushwillow Tree. He found it inhibited cell proliferation and induced apoptosis in various leukemia and osteocarcoma cell lines.

The findings are important, he said, because at least one natural compound called Paclitaxel, which is used in some chemotherapy, is known to have toxic consequences for noncancerous cells and can result in numerous side effects. While the data is preliminary and more research is required, he’s excited by the potential for the compounds he studied to be a safer alternative to toxic chemotherapeutic agents currently being used.

Ovadje, meanwhile, has been studying the anticancer properties of dandelion root extract. Her research involved breaking down the extract through a process known as fractionation in order to isolate its various bioactive components and identify the ones that are most effective at killing cancer cells.

“We’re trying to see if we can better extract these compounds to improve their quality and quantity,” she said.

Besides Tarade and Ovadje, graduate student Kristen Larocque, and undergraduates Alessia Roma and Matthew Steckle all won $250 NHPRS awards for their presentations at the conference. PhD candidate Krithika Muthukumaran won a CIHR lipidomics and neurodegeneration award worth $250.

All of their research is supported by Seeds4Hope, the Jesse and Julie Rasch Foundation and Knights of Columbus, Branch 9671.

Tarade and Ovadje will both appear today on Research Matters, a weekly talk show that focuses on the work of University of Windsor researchers and airs every Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on CJAM 99.1 FM.