Author: Jennifer R. Lloyd, Staff Writer
Twigs, leaves and berries may sound like the diet of the destitute, but for molecular medicine professor Michael Wargovich, certain plants, like those in traditional medicines and food in developing countries could be gold mines in the fight against cancer.
In his newly outfitted lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Wargovich and his staff are testing the cancer-preventing properties of green tea. They’ll also soon start investigating the anti-inflammatory abilities of the neem tree, native to India, and which already is used in some toothpastes available in the United States. Wargovich, 60, cited World Health Organization statistics showing that the hot spots for cancer will move south of the equator by 2020 as the population swells and its residents, immunized from many infectious diseases, live longer and assume a more Western lifestyle.
“They’re giving up their traditional diets,” he said. “The things that we’ve found are protecting us against cancer are disappearing as everybody tries to be homogenized and Western and going to fast-food places.”
He said undetectable chronic inflammation sets people up for illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. Yet foods with anti-inflammatory properties — fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs — are disappearing from the world’s plate.
As a side project, Wargovich and an executive chef are developing an anti-inflammatory diet to reintegrate beneficial foods into modern-day dining. In April, Wargovich will give a free public lecture about cancer-fighting foods. Visit the Cancer Therapy & Research Center’s website, CTRC.net, where details will be listed soon.
Back in his lab, he excitedly pops open plastic containers full of dried foliage, such as neem and the West African “headache plant,” Bridelia ferruginea, which he admits looks like debris he swept off his driveway. He said he met with healers in Guinea to learn about plants in traditional medicines. In the case of the “headache plant,” suffering clients boil it and inhale the steam.
“I’m just delighted to find that what we’re told as general advice from grandparents and people from other cultures had a grain of truth in it,” he said.
Keya Mukhopadhyay, 35, a fellow in Wargovich’s lab, said people in her native India called neem “the wonder tree” and use it for oral health and in body wash and soap to alleviate heat rash. She said the lab will begin testing its properties by inducing oral cancer in rats and treating them with neem extract.
Also interested in how plant compounds can reduce the side effects of current cancer therapies, Wargovich said he will start a clinical trial in South Carolina to test whether a neem mouthwash helps sooth painful mouth inflammation that occurs after patients with head and neck cancers begin therapy.
“The state of the art in 2013 from the oncologist is to put ice chips in your mouth and suck it up or they bomb you on narcotics to lessen the pain,” Wargovich said, adding that combining a prevention chemical with therapy is “going to be the frontier for us.”
In another experiment, he said, they are applying the antioxidant found in green tea to cancer cells to figure out how the compound inhibits cancer cell growth.
Wargovich likens a cancer cell to a car without brakes.
“It doesn’t only break the brakes, it breaks the cables. It breaks the steering wheel. Anything that can put a regulation on a tumor cell is broken by a tumor cell,” he said. “Some of these natural products put the brakes back on.”