Many times when we think of modern medicine, we think of synthesized chemicals, complex laboratories and doctors in white coats. In this mindset, we often forget where medicine at its most basic form is found: nature.
Senior Business Fellow and pre-med major Cassie Robertson, under the advisement of Dr. Kevin Pinney, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has employed this simple philosophy in her investigation of the cancer fighting ability of a compound found in the African Bush Willow Tree.
Robertson is attempting to expand upon the research of Dr. George Robert Pettit, director of the cancer research institute at Arizona State University. Pettit began his research in 1982 after visiting South Africa where he learned of the African Bush Willow Tree’s historical healing power, particularly in its bark.
“The African Bush Willow Tree has been used for centuries by locals for home remedies and other forms of medicine, but Dr. Pettit saw its potential ability to inhibit tumor growth,” Robertson said.
Pettit identified two tumor-inhibiting compounds called combretastatins, which are found naturally in the African Bush Willow Tree. Through her research, Robertson hopes to improve the compounds’ ability to inhibit tumor growth.
“There are two rings in the combretastatin’s molecule connected by a bridge of carbons; I am trying to manipulate the bridge by adding and removing carbons to determine if it improves the molecule’s ability to fight cancer,” Robertson said.
Surprisingly, the means by which the compound attacks the tumor cells is fairly simple.
Robertson explained, “The molecule inhibits tumor growth by attaching to the tumor and preventing blood from reaching it, inherently stopping cell division. Tumors need to be able to form their own blood vessels quickly in order to sustain growth, so by stopping blood flow, the tumor dies from starvation of nutrients.”
If Robertson is successful in improving the compounds cancer-fighting capabilities, the research could potentially provide the means to safely fight cancer in the future.
“This molecule would be taken in the form of a pill and would eliminate the tumor without causing as much harm to the body’s healthy cells as chemotherapy incites,” Robertson said. “The molecule is able to target the tumor rather than attacking normal cells, due to the fact that tumors divide rapidly compared to normal cells — and this helps the molecule distinguish between the two.”
Robertson plans a career in the medical field after graduation and hopes that by laying the foundation for this project, another student will be able to continue the research.
For Robertson, her research has had its ups and downs, but despite the challenges, she has found the experience worthwhile.
According to Robertson, “Although this project has been stressful at times, it is great to see all of the pieces come together and to see my hard work throughout college pay off in my senior year.”
This story is part of a series of undergraduate research highlights by Caleb Barfield, a student worker in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Caleb is a freshman from Denton majoring in journalism, new media and public relations. Click here to read more of his work.