Cancer Treatment Potential Of Ironweed Plant

How natural compounds in ironweed plant extract can be used to treat breast and brain cancers is the focus of a five-year $3 million National Cancer Institute (NCI) grant awarded to a University of Hawaiʻi Cancer Center researcher.

James Turkson

“It would be life changing for cancer patients if ironweed extract could help fight aggressive types of breast and brain cancers. Since the compounds are found in the plant, they are less toxic than traditional forms of treatment such as chemotherapy. This gives cancer patients a better quality of life when developed as drugs,“ said James Turkson, grant awardee and director of the UH Cancer Center’s Cancer Biology Program. “Glioblastoma is an aggressive brain cancer that currently has no cure. In addition, the types of breast cancers we are targeting are some of the most life threatening breast cancers with few successful treatments.”

Breast and brain cancer statics in Hawaiʻi according to the Hawaiʻi Tumor Registry

  • Breast cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in women in Hawaiʻi.
  • An average of 125 women die from the disease each year in the state.
  • On average 41 people in Hawaiʻi die each year from brain cancer.
Ironweed grown on the Big Island

Ironweed plant extract used in study from the Big Island and Thailand

“The vast natural resources of Hawaiʻi give our researchers a rare opportunity to make scientific discoveries of unique and significant proportions in treating cancer,” said UH Cancer Center’s Director Randall Holcombe. “This significant NCI award recognizes the breadth and depth of the natural product research focus of the UH Cancer Center, and highlights the national impact our research in Hawaiʻi has in the fight against cancer.”

Turkson along with collaborators, Associate Professor Leng Chee Chang, Associate Professor Dianqing Sun and Professor Supakit Wongwiwatthananukit at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy published a study a year and half ago showing that the natural compounds from the ironweed plant were effective in killing breast cancer and brain tumor cells and blocked the development and growth of these cancers in the laboratory. In recognition of these preliminary findings, the funds were granted to continue and expand the study.

“Our team of researchers at the UH Cancer Center and UH Hilo will now be able to probe deeper into the cancer treatment potential of ironweed. The plant’s extract is currently used in Southeast Asia for smoking cessation because of the affects the compounds have on the brain. Some of our initial findings suggest the plant’s natural compounds interfere with key cancer-causing biological pathways in the cancer cell, thereby shutting down the ability of the cells to grow and multiply,” said Turkson.

—By Nana Ohkawa