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Many plant species show great promise in fight against cancer

Research focused on plants native to Ethiopia is showing promise in the fight against cervical cancer cells. A collaboration is adding valuable insights into these compounds’ potential.

Ethiopian plants and cancer

Ethiopia’s diverse flora, comprising over 6,000 species, boasts numerous plants with significant medicinal properties. Traditional Ethiopian medicine utilizes various indigenous plants to treat ailments ranging from infections to digestive issues.

Notable examples include Moringa stenopetala, known for its nutritional and medicinal benefits, and Thymus schimperi, commonly used for respiratory issues and as an antimicrobial agent. Echinops kebericho, another indigenous plant, is traditionally used to combat infections and inflammation.

Research into these plants reveals their potential beyond traditional uses. For instance, studies show that Moringa stenopetala possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antidiabetic properties.

Additionally, Thymus schimperi and other aromatic herbs from Ethiopia demonstrate strong antimicrobial activities, offering natural alternatives to synthetic antibiotics.

Collaboration across borders

A research team from Georgia State University, Georgia State’s Perimeter College, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia, and the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University is spearheading this initiative.

This project, part of the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP), involves collecting and testing plants known for their medicinal properties.

Paulos Yohannes, a chemistry professor and associate dean for STEM/research at Georgia State University’s Perimeter College, is leading this work.

Yohannes explains that natural products have been used by African practitioners for centuries, but a lack of access to advanced instruments has hindered their ability to publish research.

The Carnegie Fellowship aims to bridge this gap by matching African-born professors with African universities to enhance research and teaching efforts.

Cancer-fighting potential of plant compounds

Following early success with the fellowship, Yohannes has returned to Ethiopia to continue the work.

Many modern medicines originate from plant chemicals, which are significant in oncology. The bioactive chemicals in these plants, such as flavonoids, tannins, curcumin, and resveratrol, have known antitumor properties.

“There are many medicinal plants that have been used by traditional healers for centuries,” Yohannes said. “Preliminary studies have shown that we are working with plant extracts exhibiting anticancer activities.”

Analyzing plant extracts for cancer treatment

Yohannes is collaborating with Binghe Wang, Georgia State Regents’ Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

The team has analyzed over 30 plant extracts from Ethiopia, finding several active against cervical cancer cells. The research has yielded significant results, including the discovery of a new compound not found in existing databases.

Materials from these plants are extracted by an Ethiopian team led by Professor Ermias Dagne, who has over 45 years of experience in medicinal plant chemistry.

These extracts are sent to Georgia State as crude extracts or isolated compounds for testing their disease-fighting effectiveness.

Cytotoxicity tests are performed on HeLa cells (cervical cancer) to determine the half-maximal inhibitory concentration (IC-50), a key measure of a drug’s efficacy.

Identifying and analyzing anticancer compounds

“There are two important aspects to such a research project,” Wang explained.

“First, we assess these extracts or purified compounds for biological activity, starting with cell culture experiments. In searching for anticancer compounds, we look for those that exhibit potent cytotoxicity against cancer cells. Once activity is confirmed, we conduct spectroscopic experiments to confirm the compounds’ structures.”

The team is working with compounds from a plant identified as Commiphora sp. nov., endemic to Ethiopia.

Several compounds isolated from these extracts were analyzed spectroscopically by Siming Wang, Director of the Mass Spectrometry Facility, and Zhenming Du, Senior Scientist and Director of the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) Facility at Georgia State.

Additionally, anticancer activity analysis is conducted by experts at the Winship Cancer Center at Emory University under the leadership of Wei Zhou, who heads the Cell and Molecular Research Program.

Future of plants and cancer research

So far, four plant extracts have shown higher activity not only against cervical cancer cells but also other cell lines. The researchers have observed “interesting cell death pathways,” and more samples are on the way for further analysis.

“Eighty percent of the Ethiopian population uses traditional medicine to treat their illnesses. We know these plants have medicinal value,” Yohannes said. “I am encouraged that this research will yield extraordinary findings and inspire more extensive study.”

This collaboration highlights the potential of traditional knowledge combined with modern scientific techniques to discover new cancer-fighting compounds, offering hope for new treatments and a deeper understanding of natural medicine’s role in healthcare.


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