UWindsor researcher on a roll using natural extracts to fight cancer

Post-doctoral fellow Pam OvadjePost-doctoral fellow Pam Ovadje works with biochemistry professor Siyaram Pandey.

After finding treatment possibilities in dandelion root extract, biochemistry professor Siyaram Pandey and the students in his lab have discovered a second natural extract that successfully targets cancer cells.

His latest paper shows that extract from the flowering plant long pepper makes cancer cells undergo apoptosis—essentially committing suicide.

“It targets the weakness of the cancer cells, the metabolic vulnerability of cancer cells. Healthy cells can tolerate the extract but cancer cells cannot tolerate it, they die,” says Dr. Pandey. In addition to testing the substance on a cellular level and studying cells in a petri dish in the lab, his team also fed it orally to mice with tumours. “We proved it is not toxic. It dissolves into the system, goes to the tumour site and blocks the growth of the tumour.”

Pandey, post-doctoral fellow Pam Ovadje, and graduate and undergraduate student contributors, have just published their long pepper findings in the November 2014 edition of PLOS One.

Pandey’s previous research indicated that dandelion root extract induces apoptosis in cancer cells. Health Canada has approved clinical trials to use the extract on people who are terminally ill with cancer. Those trials are expected to start soon, overseen by Dr. Ovadje.

Pandey says cancers can become resistant to chemotherapy drugs. That’s why a patient may have a first, second, third or fourth drug used in chemotherapy. This inspired the question: What if a tumour became resistant to a natural extract? He wanted a secondary natural extract in case the cancer cells became resistant to dandelion root extract.

He chose to study long pepper because there were studies done in the 1960s in Boston proving anti-cancer properties from a single purified compound isolated from the plant. Long pepper is a flowering vine and looks like a long, thin, smooth pine cone. The fruit of the plant is used as a spice and is also found in Ayurvedic natural medicine.

Instead of using the single compound purified extract, Pandey’s used a crude extract, which means all the compounds naturally found in the plant remain present. His research found this crude extract was 100 times more effective than the purified version.

“We are quite excited that this polychemical, or crude, mixture extracted from long pepper has activity as good as the pure compound or even better. It turns out that there may be other compounds in the extract which are working in synergy with that pure compound,” he says. “This crude mixture has multiple compounds which are targeting cancer cells in multiple ways. They are targeting the multiple weaknesses of the cancer cells.”

He says this completes the pre-clinical work for long pepper; the next step will be to get money and approval from Health Canada to do a clinical trial. He also has identified 20 natural extracts he would like to test for anti-cancer properties.

Pandey’s research was mainly funded by a Seeds4Hope grant from Windsor and Essex County Cancer Centre Foundation, as well as donations from Pajama Angels, the Couvillon family and the Knights of Columbus.