Researchers seek plant-based, gentler cancer treatments

Meghann Rise

Meghann Rise

Cancer affects millions of people across the globe, and research is now being done locally.

Gunda Georg, professor and department head of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Minnesota, is working with a team of researchers to find a more natural way to treat pancreatic and breast cancer.

Georg gave a two-part lecture on campus March 30 and 31. Her first public lecture covered her discovery of natural resources as a way of treating cancer patients. Although she is not a pioneer in this area of research, she is part of a team that is working on a clinical trial for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

“She has had a lot of success in her research,” said associate professor of chemistry David Cartrette. “Most of her work has been dedicated to the worst cancers: breast cancer and pancreatic cancer.”

Georg earned her degree in pharmacy and then her Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry in 1980. She then studied synthetic organic chemistry at the University of Ottawa and worked as a faculty member at the University of Kansas. In 2007 she moved to the U of M.

She has more than 25 years experience in drug discovery, 490 publications and has taught 150 students in her laboratory, including Xiangming Guan, SDSU professor of pharmaceutical sciences.

“I think her research benefits us medicinal chemists,” Guan said, “She has been working in the cancer area for a long time.”

Guan was Georg’s first graduate student in 1985.

“We were doing synthetic work mostly; making compounds and figuring out how to get good methods to develop compounds,” Guan said.

Research similar to Georg’s work is also being conducted at SDSU. If students are interested, Fathi Halaweish, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, works on this type research, focusing on cervical and breast cancer.

“I was very happy to see the new laboratories that are being built for chemistry and pharmacy and the investment the state is making in SDSU by providing funding for research centers and technology commercialization,” Georg said.

Most of Georg’s work revolves around chemistry and the breaking down of compounds in certain plants. Georg and her group are involved in the design and biological evaluation of natural resources.

“Fundamentally, what she does is look at compounds that are found in plants and isolates them,” Cartrette said. “She then tries to mimic these compounds using chemistry. She is trying to mimic nature in the lab setting. After isolating particular compounds, she then has to test them against cell lines of different types of cancers.”

Cartrette said that almost every person is in some way affected by cancer.

“Cancer is one of those illnesses that’s like five degrees of separation. It touches everyone’s life in some way,” Cartrette said. “So learning about other types of treatment could be of interest.”

Although there are already methods of treating cancer, like chemotherapy and radiation, Georg’s work is potentially less harmful for the body.

“Right now there are basically three approaches to the treatment of cancer,” Cartrette said. “First is the use of some sort of compound-medicine, and the second is radiation. The third is to put everything together. The advantage of using compounds derived from plants is that it may be less harmful to a biological organism.”

Students are excited about Georg’s research.

“Finding more natural ways to treat cancer is a step in the right direction,” said senior advertising major Tyler Bitner. “Treatments like radiation and chemotherapy are so harmful for the body, and it’s great to see other treatments available. Solutions to all man’s problems lie with Mother Earth.”

Georg’s research is paving the way for future students and researchers like senior chemistry major Nikki Williams.

“(Georg’s research) displays the potential that technology and education have to help us and the rapid progress of the health field,” Williams said. “Her research interests me personally because I plan to go into pharmaceutical science research, and I can learn from what she has already accomplished. “

By giving public lecture series like this, Georg provides valuable information to the population about treating cancer.

“Her presentation benefited the community,” Guan said. “It let people know about an advanced area in cancer research. Dr. Georg is leading an advanced group in terms of facilities and approaches of how to get the compounds.”