February 19th, 2018

U of L researcher studying prairie plants for medicinal purposes

By Kuhl, Nick on September 6, 2017.

Demi Knight

Southern Alberta Newspapers

A University of Lethbridge professor is joining the fight against cancer by conducting his own research.

Roy Golsteyn, associate biology professor and principle investigator of the cancer cell laboratory, and a team of students have been invested over the past four years in research of native plant species and their medicinal properties.

By collecting wildflowers and plants across southern Alberta and studying their medicinal properties in the lab, Golsteyn hopes to uncover the benefits they may contain that haven’t yet been explored.

“Like many people know, we need better and safer cancer medicines, and plants are the best source of medicines. Dr. Sophie Kerneis (from Lethbridge College) and I came up with the idea when we realized that the plants in southern Alberta have not yet been investigated for medical properties,” says Golsteyn of the research being conducted.

Although, as Golsteyn stated, plants do tend to hold many medical benefits, many plants throughout Alberta have been neglected to be studied in such ways due to their lack of biodiversity in comparison to areas such as tropical forests and wetlands.

However, Golsteyn says the plants that are home to the vast prairie land offer a different mix of chemicals worth exploring.

“Prairie flowering plants are special because they need to produce chemicals to protect themselves from grazing animals, such as the buffalo at one time, or now cattle and deer, and sometimes these chemicals can make good medicines.”

During the summer months, when the plants are flowering, Golsteyn and students can be found scouring the prairie lands to collect samples of indigenous plants and studying them under the microscope.

Although the method used to conduct research is similar to that used across the globe, Golsteyn says methods are less developed in Canada, and his team follows a strict process as they search for the coveted cure.

“We collect native prairie plants by sustainable harvest, ensuring they are correctly identified.

“Dr. John Bain, U of L herbarium director, does this for us. We then extract the chemicals, and test them. The unique parts of the project are the plants, and the tests that we use to detect anti-cancer activity.”

Once in the lab, the professor and his students track interesting activity and pass on their findings to colleagues. One Golsteyn mentions is professor Raymond Andersen, from the University of British Columbia, who is a natural product chemist.

For the past four years this project has been underway and some results are finally in the making.

“We identified an important chemical from the Brown-eyed Susan (Gaillardia aristata), which we are now sending to scientists at the University of Calgary, University of Alberta and University of Manitoba for further investigation. If the chemical continues to do well in tests, we will then cultivate the plant to have a reliable source of chemical,” says Golsteyn.

Even though results are looking good for the Brown-eyed Susan, finding an actual cure for diseases such as cancer is a much larger and extensive project.

However, hope for cures continue, as students from all educational and living backgrounds opt to join the team and work towards a better future.

“Students have a very important role because many of them are naturally curious about science and have a commitment to saving the environment so they might find both of these components in this research,” says Golsteyn of his team of student researchers.

For all students interested in joining the team and learning more about this project, Golsteyn emphasizes the broad range of education this research can offer. From medical research, ecology and chemistry to biotechnology and agriculture, students who are a part of this research are likely to gain invaluable experience in a wide range of important areas.

“A key component of the Prairie Plant Project is to train the next generation of scientists. Canada needs more scientists who can take some of the high-tech knowledge found in laboratories and link it to plants and ecosystems in our own country,” adds Golsteyn.

Officials with the U of L and Lethbridge College are also excited to incorporate students from agriculture and farming backgrounds who are interested in cultivating native prairie plants, so they can expand their training programs.

However, it’s not just students who are making this project a reality. Golsteyn is also working with the First Nations people of southern Alberta who have used plants he has been studying for years as sources of their own medicines. Working with this population has helped Golsteyn become more educated and gain a better understanding of certain refined species.

“The University of Lethbridge Research Services was very supportive to get this project off the ground. Our plan is to make the University of Lethbridge and southern Alberta the centre for discovery and training in medicinal plants, perhaps even working with the vast agricultural expertise in our area to start a commercial production of the best plants,” says Golsteyn as the plans for this research are unveiled.

This project that started in spring as the plants began to flower, will continue throughout the summer as this is the best time of year to find high presence of chemicals within these flowers.

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