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Healthcare genetics battles cancer with new therapies

Julie Eggert, Ph.D. and Lyndon Larcom, Ph.D.

Julie Eggert, Ph.D., and Lyndon Larcom, Ph.D.Despite President Nixon's declaration of a war on cancer and his goal of having a cure by 2000, in 2010 there still has been little progress in reducing the incidence of cancer or of developing effective cures. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments can have devastating effects both physically and emotionally. All too frequently, these treatments fail to result in a real cure, even though they do increase survival time. The goal of our cancer research group in Clemson’s interdisciplinary healthcare genetics program is to identify naturally occurring compounds that will destroy cancer cells, reduce their ability to spread, increase the effectiveness of currently used therapies and/or enhance the body’s ability to reject cancer.

Healthcare Genetics battles cancer with new therapiesData show clearly that the incidence of cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias of the elderly are significantly lower in societies where the diets are composed primarily of vegetables and fruits. A few of the compounds isolated from these products have been tested, and results show that animals exposed to carcinogens are protected from cancer, heart disease and other health hazards. Resveratrol, for example, suppresses the nausea and heart damage produced by some of the drugs used in standard chemotherapy.

Our research has been focused on the anti-cancer effects of berries and extracts from them. We have shown that several types of berries can block the ability of some carcinogens to induce mutations that can transform healthy cells into cancer cells. Raspberries, blackberries and muscadine grapes also can inactivate the enzymes cancer cells use to invade surrounding tissue and spread to distant tissues.

Most recently, funding provided by Clemson graduates Jim and Carolyn Creel has allowed us to investigate the possible use of a raspberry extract in cancer therapy. Extracts from berries can kill cancer cells in culture as shown in figure 1. Also, both raspberry extract and resveratrol from grapes can greatly enhance the ability of the commonly used drug gemcitabine to destroy pancreatic cancer cells, indicating that using either of these to complement chemotherapy might improve efficiency of treatment for this aggressive type of cancer (figure 2). As indicated in the table, when some healthy people consume freeze-dried berries, their blood plasma becomes more effective at killing various types of cancer cells. We are currently planning to begin a study using raspberry extract to supplement chemotherapy in breast and pancreatic cancer patients. Our cell studies have also produced data to support the enhancement of prostate cancer growth by dairy products, an effect proposed by Robert Bibb, M.D., of Myrtle Beach.

This “bench” research is one of the three cognate areas available to students in the healthcare genetics doctoral program offered through the School of Nursing. Other areas include an ethics and/or policy focus and the caring cognate as an interventionist. Recently, Bettye Cecil, a visionary in elder care, created the Cecil Fellowship in Geriatrics and Genetics for an RN student who has an interest in geriatrics and genetics. Like the field of genetics, this geriatric focus joined with genetics has exciting implications for the future of elder care. As the only program of its type in the nation, Clemson’s healthcare genetics program brings the disciplines of genetics, health care, ethics and other fields to address the emerging needs of a society dealing with the outcomes of the genetics revolution.