Dr. Carolyn Howard has been a part of the esteemed faculty at Jackson State University for 16 years, and much of her research has focused on cancer and cancer treatments. She recently won a 2014 Presidential Creative Award for Faculty and Staff for her proposal to study the impact an African plant has on mammary cancer stem cells (MCSC), which are resistant to most available therapies.
At the center of Howard’s pilot study is Vernonia amygdalina (VA). The plant’s leaves have been consumed for hundreds of years, either as a vegetable or aqueous extracts, for the maintenance of good health. Previous preliminary findings suggest VA shows promise in reducing mammary cancer stem cell MCSC-mediated initiation and progression of mammary tumors.
Howard was introduced to the plant more than a decade ago by a faculty colleague whose grandmother, who was an herbalist in Nigeria, used VA to treat illnesses. He brought the plant back to Jackson State University, where it was patented.
“We were the first to use the aqueous extract of VA as an anti-cancer agent. We have been striving to validate VA ever since then,” Howard says.
Breast cancer is a complex disease consisting of many heterogeneous cell types. Aggressive triple negative breast cancers with higher stem cell content are frequently diagnosed in pre-menopausal African-American women who suffer the worst outcomes to chemotherapy, the only treatment option available.
“If this study is successful, VA could be recommended as a preventative measure for women at a higher risk for developing breast cancer, as well as eventually become a new treatment for mammary cancer patients,” Howard says.
Howard says the project’s ultimate goals include generating preliminary data for full-fledged National Institutes of Health grant applications and finding more effective treatments against the most aggressive forms of breast cancer.
The project is an inter-institutional collaboration with Dr. Shehla Pervin, an assistant professor at Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles.