USC researchers say plants may help with cancer treatment
Dr. Vicki Vance says doing experiments makes her happy because you get clues, make progress and feel great with each step.
John MacArthur is hopeful that his research works because it would be a cost effective way to help people who suffer from cancer.
The scientific name for the plant is Arabidopsis, and it's grown in a growth chamber.
Alyson Grant is grateful that Vance and MacArthur gave her the opportunity to join their research team.
By: Abbey O'Brien
Dr. Vicki Vance and her team of researchers at the University of South Carolina think they have a new idea for treating cancer. Vance is a molecular plant scientist who is testing out how genetically modified plants with tumor-suppressing micro-RNA could work on mice with colon cancer.
“A lot of diseases are due to not making miRNAs anymore, so you get out of balance,” said Vance.
Micro-RNA is a molecule much smaller than DNA that helps with regulating genes. The idea is that once miRNA is put into plants, you would just eat them. It would be non-invasive, non-toxic, and, unlike chemotherapy, it would have no major side effects.
The research team tested the miRNA on mice with tumors and when they did a tumor count, it looked like it had worked.
“It was like a miracle,” said Vance. "It looked like there was a big reduction in tumor burden."
USC graduate student John MacArthur is working with Vance and says he’s very hopeful that the research will someday help humans.
“I really like the research because I get hands-on with bacteria, plants, and mouse work. Not only that, but the potential for this to be so big. It can help a lot of people treat such a terrible disease,” said MacArthur.
The plants are grown in a “growth chamber” where bulbs act as sunlight. They take a couple of weeks to develop before they are harvested. After they’re fully grown, MacArthur grinds them up in liquid nitrogen and freeze-dries the remnants before they're made into what they call mouse chow.
Student Alyson Grant is also working on the project and she says this has been an exciting part of her senior year.
“In the future, if it succeeded, knowing that I helped them with it would be awesome,” said Grant.
The next step in the team’s research is to actually put the miRNA into the plants and feed it to mice. If that works, the team is hopeful that humans would be able to eat the plant in a pill form.
“Things are looking up. I feel hopeful. If this feeding experiment works, it’ll be great,” said Vance. Even though Vance is hopeful, she says there are some skeptics.
“People say ‘we can’t see that happening,’ but our work clearly shows that it does happen. So I think it’s going to turn around,” admits Vance.
However, even if everything goes as planned, that’s still a few years away. But the research has so much potential, and Vance has enjoyed it every step of the way.
“Not only do you get the fun of figuring out how things work, but you also may be doing something that will help a lot of people. It doesn’t get much better than that," she said.