Christmas ferns are pretty ordinary plants in the botanical world – they are in abundance in the eastern half of the United States, and if you walk through a shaded area of a park, you can find them pretty easily.
Yet the properties inside this ostensibly unremarkable fern may be a catalyst toward combatting an aggressive form of brain cancer. So says, Sarah Crawford, a professor of biology at Southern who has an extensive background in cancer research.
But her statement is more than just an abstract theoretical possibility. An extract made from the Christmas fern has demonstrated anti-cancer properties in pre-clinical testing conducted by Crawford and her students. In fact, the results were impressive enough to spur the U.S. Patent Office to award Crawford, as well as Erin Boisvert, a former student of Crawford, a patent for the extract.
“This is really exciting news,” Crawford says. “I applied for the patent more than six years ago and was hopeful it would grant its approval. But it’s a long, thorough process. You’re never quite sure whether it is going to be approved or not.”
The extract was tested as part of a three-component cocktail – carmustine, a powerful chemotherapy drug used to treat brain cancer; curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric that has anti-inflammatory qualities; and polystichum acrostichoides, the technical name for the Christmas fern. The plant is believed to have antioxidant properties, but to Crawford’s knowledge, it has not previously undergone rigorous testing for its anti-cancer ability.
The tests showed that the cocktail was effective in killing nearly half of the cancer cells in tiny tumors created in the Biology Department lab – far more effective than use of any of the three substances alone. “I won’t rest until we can kill 100 percent of the cancer cells, but it’s a good start,” she says, adding that she plans to experiment by using different levels of each substance to see if that increases the efficacy of the extract’s anti-cancer properties. She said she also may test other chemotherapy drugs with the Christmas fern and curcumin.
Crawford says that a reduction in the level of carmustine, but maintaining or increasing the effectiveness of the cocktail, would be ideal. That could reduce the side effects commonly associated with chemotherapy drugs.
The tests were conducted on glioblastoma multiforme, considered to be the most deadly form of brain cancer with a fatality rate of more than 90 percent within five years.
Two current students are assisting Crawford with this project.
Brielle Hayward, who is a graduate fellow, is examining the Christmas fern’s antioxidant properties and comparing its anti-cancer effects with other phytochemical antioxidants, such as American and Korean ginseng.
Paulina Mrowiec, who is a member of the Honors College, is continuing her research on the project after completing an undergraduate thesis last spring on pre-clinical models for cancer drug testing.
Crawford says she looks forward to the opening of the Academic and Laboratory Science Building, scheduled for 2015, which promises state-of-the-art facilities and equipment to conduct further research.