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$2.2M Grant from NCI to Support Research on
Cancer Fighting Plant Extract

A team of researchers at The University of Texas has been awarded a $2.2 million grant to help determine how compounds that occur naturally in a plant extract inhibit cancer development.

Dr. John DiGiovanni, professor of pharmacology and toxicology and nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Thomas Slaga, professor of pharmacology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, are co-principal investigators of the study.  The grant, awarded by the National Cancer Institute, supports their work over a five-year period. The project also includes Dr. Dionicio Siegel, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Cancer is largely a preventable disease," said DiGiovanni.  "Despite significant advances in cancer treatment and early detection, overall cancer incidence has increased worldwide, cancer-associated morbidity is considerable, and overall cancer survival has remained relatively flat over the past several decades."

The researchers are investigating the use of phytonutrients to inhibit, delay or reverse abnormal cell growth that occurs during cancer development in epithelial tissues.  This process known as cancer chemoprevention involves examining synthetic or natural compounds and combinations of compounds that work to block the growth of early or premalignant cancer cells.  This study is also connected to other ongoing research designed to unravel the link between obesity and cancer development through the identification of naturally occurring compounds that can mimic the effects of calorie restriction.  Calorie restriction has been shown to inhibit tumor growth in many animal models of human cancer.

In this recently funded study, the team is focusing on ursolic acid (UA) and related pentacyclic triterpene compounds found naturally.  UA is found in rosemary, apples, berries and other naturally occurring foods.  UA is candidate calorie restriction mimetic compound and in earlier studies UA and other tritepenoids have been shown to inhibit tumor development, including skin cancer.

"The compounds we are studying are also particularly abundant in Perilla frutescens, a member of the mint family," DiGiovanni said. The extract and compounds under study come from the leaves of two varieties of this plant which are used extensively in asian cuisines.  "Red perilla is found most often in fish stews in China, while green perilla is more commonly found in both Korean and Japanese cuisines."  Perilla is also referred to as Japanese basil or Shiso.

"The long term goal of this research is to identify safe and effective naturally occurring chemopreventive compounds that can reduce the overall incidence of cancer,  said DiGiovanni"

Last Reviewed: November 15, 2012

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