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First Nation knowledge aids in quest for anti-cancer compounds


Lethbridge, AB – In the native prairie grasses of southern Alberta, University of Lethbridge biological sciences researcher Dr. Roy Golsteyn is looking for new cancer treatments – and by inviting help from traditional First Nations knowledge practitioners, he is hoping his quest is significantly aided.

The project is the first search for anti-cancer agents based on First Nations traditional knowledge within Alberta.

In a chance meeting with Piikani Nation elder Conrad Littleleaf at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site, Golsteyn came to an important realization; combining his quest for a new anti-cancer compound with Littleleaf’s traditional First Nations knowledge could be key in a critical discovery.

“I did not immediately present myself as a cancer research scientist, however, I realized that we know little about how flora and fauna of Alberta might be used to treat cancer,” says Golsteyn. “I soon invited Mr. Littleleaf to my Cancer Cell Laboratory at the University of Lethbridge to discuss the possibility of exchanging knowledge.

“We are still inviting First Nations members to work with us. Importantly, we are learning how to share knowledge, so we can find new anti-cancer drugs while respecting the origins and uses of traditional knowledge.”

From this collaboration, and with support through the University of Lethbridge Research Fund, the Prairie to Pharmacy project was born.

“The geographical placement of the university and the people of our region make us a natural centre for this project. In addition to Mr. Littleleaf’s help, we’ve enlisted Dr. John Bain (biological sciences), a botanist, who is the director of the University of Lethbridge Herbarium,” says Golsteyn. “We also met with Leroy Little Bear (University of Lethbridge Professor Emeritus) who has been providing guidance.”

Some of the most effective anti-cancer compounds are derived from natural products. For example, Taxol (an anti-cancer, chemotherapy drug) was discovered in extracts prepared from the bark of the pacific yew, a shrub that grows in the interior of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

Another example, indigo dye (the colouring agent of blue jeans) is a natural compound with anti-cancer activity. The Chinese had recognized indigo for its anti-tumour activity for centuries, and further research on indigo led to the discovery of the anti-leukemia drug, meisoindigo.

Golsteyn says there are compelling reasons to search Alberta’s prairies for a cancer breakthrough.

“For at least 6,000 years, First Nations people have sustained themselves with the materials available to them on the Prairies. They have acquired a profound knowledge of their environment,” says Golsteyn. “There has been little Western scientific research on the anti-cancer potential of plants from the Prairies, especially of those in southern Alberta. We need to know if anti-cancer substances are present in the Prairies. First Nations people certainly hold a knowledge that could help in this quest.”

Littleleaf, Bain and Golsteyn will collect plant materials (roots, stems and leaves) at various sites in southern Alberta. The plants will then be taken back to the lab at the U of L to be processed and tested on cancer cells.

The Prairie to Pharmacy project is also supported by Dr. Laurent Meijer from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Roscoff, France – a renowned researcher with over 250 publications on cancer cell division and anti-cancer drugs. He discovered the natural anti-cancer drug, Roscovitine (cyc202/Seliciclib), which is in phase II clinical trials.

Meijer has led expeditions for natural products in continental Europe and Polynesia. He is the co-founder of the biotechnology company, ManRos Therapeutics, which operates the Sea to Pharmacy project, upon which Golsteyn has based the Prairie to Pharmacy idea.