Botanical healers have long treasured Oregon grape and sweet Annie for their medicinal qualities. Bastyr University naturopathic medicine student Renee Choi wants to find out if the two plants can fight cancer.
This fall she begins a study that will test extracts of the two herbs on cancerous prostate cells. The project aims to shed light on how cancer spreads within the gland and what natural remedies might prevent, slow or reverse its growth.
The seven-month project is a way to pursue her lifelong interest in health — and it's also a way to honor her grandfather, who suffered from prostate cancer for 10 years.
"When I started prostate cancer research, it really spoke to me personally," says Choi, 28, a third-year naturopathic medicine student from Korea. "It's a great feeling to do research on how to prevent it."
Bringing scientific precision to the study of traditional herbal remedies is nothing new to Choi, who spent two years conducting research at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. As a child growing up in Korea, she visited both Western medical doctors and traditional healers — a common combination there, she says.
She thought she was headed toward a doctor of medicine program when she studied as a pre-medicine student at Cornell University, which included internships at busy New York City hospitals. But her interest in natural medicine grew, especially when she saw opportunities to combine it with lab research.
"Everything in conventional medicine is backed up by clinical trials and scientific research," she says. "With complementary and alternative medicine, people are finding that it works without that, through their first-hand experiences. But research definitely helps bring more people to it."
At NCCAM, Choi studied Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), a naturally occurring hormone that is believed by some to have anti-aging properties and is sold as a supplement. Choi's research found that DHEA appears to be harmless for healthy prostate cells. But for cells in a "tumor microenvironment" that often precedes cancer, the hormone can accelerate the progression to cancer.
Her work at Bastyr will try to reverse that effect. The study is unique in the type of cells it examines. Most research into prostate cancer focuses on epithelial cells, or barrier-forming cells. Choi's project looks at stromal cells, or connector cells, and how the growth factors they secrete play a role in accelerating cancer's spread. She will test whether Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), sweet Annie (Artemisia annua) — and potentially other herbs — can halt the growth in petri dishes.
She says she chose Bastyr over other naturopathic medicine and MD programs because of the strength of its research facilities. Last summer, she conducted a separate project on nutrition-focused cancer remedies, funded by a pre-doctoral training grant that NCCAM awarded Bastyr.
Her current study is funded by Bastyr's Center for Student Research, which coordinates and funds student projects and connects students with faculty mentors. In Choi's case, naturopathic medicine core faculty member Cynthia Wenner, PhD, will serve as a primary mentor; botanical medicine core faculty member Eric Yarnell, ND, will provide guidance on the herbs to be studied; and Kaleb Lund, PhD, will supervise lab operations.
While Choi puts in lab time, she'll also be managing class work and clinical shifts. "It's challenging, but it's not impossible," she says of the balancing act. "You manage your time and do what you can do."
If the study goes well, she hopes to submit a paper for publication next spring. Clinical trials — testing potential treatments on human patients — are still years away.
The pace of research requires patience and persistence, says Mark R. Martzen, PhD, CIP, director of the Center for Student Research and senior director of research development. Few students come to Bastyr with as much research experience as Choi, but about a third of them have some lab experience, he says. And the ones that try it here often find it rewarding.
"When you have the opportunity to uncover something previously unknown and add to what we know about ourselves as human beings, it makes up for all of the setbacks and experiments that fail," Dr. Martzen says. "There really aren't very many experiences in life that can top adding a new piece of knowledge to the world."