Story by Kim Willis
Photography By Dongjai Lai
Most people think of dandelions as the annoying ubiquitous yellow weeds that show up in their lawns. However, dandelions could hold the key to being the most effective cancer-fighting compound in the world.
The Dandelion Root Project started in 2009 when Dr. Caroline Hamm, an oncologist at Windsor Regional Hospital’s Cancer Program, contacted Dr. Siyaram Pandey a Professor of Biochemistry from the University of Windsor.
Dr. Hamm noticed the interesting properties of dandelion root while treating an 85-year-old woman with leukemia who saw a dramatic drop in her white blood count after drinking dandelion tea.
Tests in petri dishes and in mice have shown the dandelion extract attacks the cancerous cells, but does not impact healthy ones. This could provide an effective alternative to traditional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation which cause collateral damage to the patient.
Together they started investigating the anticancer effect of the root extract of dandelions against cancer cells in the lab (in cells and in animal models).
Previous research, as well as recent research from the University of Windsor, has found that dandelion root may be especially effective in treating and defeating cancer and much more so than immune system-destroying chemotherapy.
Dr. Siyaram Pandey, along with his fellow researchers, have shown successfully in the lab how the dandelion root extract causes cancer cells to go through apoptosis, or cell suicide, while leaving healthy cells intact.
The dandelion root formula in use in the Pandey lab is about five times more concentrated than the extract and has been proven to kill leukemia, melanoma and pancreatic cancer cells in lab mice. This formula is under Phase 1 clinical trial, and is not available for public until approval from health Canada.
The research could one day lead to a cancer treatment that is non-toxic and not derived from synthetic chemicals.
“It triggers a very specific kind of suicide,” Pandey said of the process in which the dandelion root extract causes cancer cells to die.
“The fantastic observation was that it was very selective to cancers.”
In other words, the extract only targeted cancer cells and not healthy cells.
This is a contrast to current chemotherapy treatments, which are very toxic and damage normal cells in the process of killing cancerous ones.
Researchers are confident that they have finally developed the correct dosage of the extract. They are delighted that Health Canada approved the first round of clinical trials that began in 2016. Clinical trials were opened to 30 patients with blood-borne cancers such as leukemia, all of whom had already exhausted all other cancer treatment options. Three patients are currently participating in the trials and are doing well and not in the hospital.
“This is for people who have exhausted all other options,” said Dr. Pandey.
“As far as clinical trials go, this has progressed quickly. We need to be impatient because people are dying,” says Dr. Pandey.
Patients can be from across Canada, but treatment will be provided out of the Windsor Regional Cancer Program through Dr. Hamm.
Researchers are now exploring how dandelion works in combination with chemo-therapy. Other recent progress includes having reports about the research published in a number of science journals. They have also partnered with Calgary Company Advanced Orthomolecular Research for quality-controlled production of the dandelion root extract.
Dr. Pandey’s research laboratory is focused on evaluating the activity of natural extracts against human diseases, in particular cancer.
“Relatively well-tolerated and nontoxic natural health products have great potential for developing cancer therapeutics, but the scientific validation of their activity, mechanism of action and standardization of the quality control is needed to bring them to mainstream therapeutics,” says Dr. Pandey.
“We are working on identifying the anticancer components of dandelion root extract and investigating the mechanism of action. We are also working on 4 different natural extracts that have similar potential. We have a state of-the-art cell culture facility and established models of different human cancers and a highly-skilled group of 4 graduate and 10 undergraduate students working at the University of Windsor in collaboration with Dr. Arnason at the University of Ottawa.”
Since the start of this project, the team has been able to successfully assess the effect of a simple water extract of dandelion root in various human cancer cell types, in the lab and have observed its effectiveness against human T cell leukemia, chronic myelomonocytic leukemia, pancreatic and colon cancers, with no toxicity to non-cancer cells. Furthermore, these efficacy studies have been confirmed in animal models (mice) that have been transplanted with human colon cancer cells.
Melanoma skin cancer, which has become one of the leading cancers among adults ages 25 to 29 in North America, is oddly resistant to chemotherapy. Treatment, then, is limited to surgical excision of the primary tumor site followed by immunotherapy and mostly ineffective chemotherapy for metastasized melanoma. Not only do standard treatments often prove to be inadequate, but patients suffer harsh side effects, often with no results.
In an effort to find effective and alternative therapies, Pandey and his colleagues recently investigated the effect of dandelion root extract (DRE) on human melanoma cell lines in vitro. Specifically, they prepared extracts of dandelion root using a variety of techniques, including filtration, lyophilization, constitution, and sterilization. After they prepared the DRE, they treated in vitro cells with the DRE, experimenting with different specific concentrations and time points.
The extract they had created targets the mitochondria, the site of cellular respiration, and generates reactive oxygen species molecules which damage the cell. Although it is unclear which components of the DRE were active when successfully destroying the human melanoma cells, it clearly acted as a “natural chemotherapeutic agent that may be extended to other chemo-resistant cancer lines.” This is not surprising as many cultures have long asserted healing properties of dandelions.
One of the most beneficial attributes of the dandelion as medicine is that side effects are very rare. When the rare symptom does occur, it tends to come in the form of mild gastrointestinal upset, contact dermatitis, or diarrhea. Among Native American cultures, including the Iroquois, Ojibwe, and Rappahannock, the root is prepared with herbs to treat kidney disease, upset stomach, and heartburn. Meanwhile in traditional Arabian medicine, the dandelion is frequently used as a treatment for those illnesses that originate in the liver and the spleen.
Dandelions have other health benefits as well. The dandelion greens contain extremely important vitamins and minerals such as vitamin B6, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin C, iron, calcium, potassium, folate, magnesium and manganese. They may contribute up to 535% of the suggested daily intake of vitamin K, not to mention over 110% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A. It is believed that some of its flavonoids such as zeaxanthin and cryptoxanthin have specific healing properties. Zeaxanthin seems to provide protection for the retina when confronted by the sun's UV rays, while cryptoxanthin can potentially defend the body against the development of mouth and lung cancer cells.
With a proven record as a healing agent, the dandelion has earned the attention it is currently receiving in the scientific community. “Although we have proven dandelion to be effective, there is still lots of work to do to prove effectiveness as many are still skeptical of natural extracts as forms of treatment,” states Dr. Pandey. “We are extremely grateful to Windsor community for its generous support for this project, in particular to the Couvillon family, Knight of Columbus, Seeds4Hope grant from Windsor and Essex County Cancer Centre Foundation, Pajama Angles, 100 Who Women Who Care, 100 Men Who Give a Damn and Windsor Mold Group, and Prostate Cancer Fight Foundation’s Ride for Dad.” says Pandey.
The clinical trial is funded by Lotte and John Hechct Memorial Foundation in Vancouver.’