Cancer-fighting drugs in your pasture?

University of Lethbridge researchers have already found one native plant — buffalo beans — that offers early promise

buffalo bean plant
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Plants you see every day in your pasture could contain valuable components for cancer-fighting drugs.

Scientists from the University of Lethbridge recently found that buffalo beans, a plant commonly found in pastures in the south, contain compounds that may be beneficial to people fighting cancer.

Roy Golsteyn at microscope
Got an interesting native plant in your pasture? Researcher 
Roy Golsteyn would like to hear from you. photo: Supplied

“We’ve always been interested in my lab in looking for new cancer drugs because we need better drugs to help patients,” said Roy Golsteyn, a cancer researcher at the university.

“It’s a pretty tough climate (in southern Alberta) and the growing conditions are not the easiest in the world, so plants have to build up defences to all sorts of things.”

Many plants use chemicals to keep them from being eaten by animals or by insects, and so researchers analyze these compounds with an eye to finding a new use for them.

That’s the case with buffalo beans, which are only found in southern Alberta, northern Montana and Saskatchewan.

It’s a short plant with small yellow flowers, which eventually turn into beans, and has a fast growing cycle. And while the hardy native prairie pasture plant is one of the earlier species to bloom, cattle don’t find it palatable and avoid eating it.

People should, too.

“We also know that there was a case study at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary where it was documented that children had eaten the buffalo bean plant and were quite sick because of it,” said Golsteyn.

“That’s bad for the people who had eaten it, but scientifically, it turns out to be quite interesting because it means there are chemicals in it that affect human health.”

Scientists at the University of Lethbridge conducted a series of tests on the buffalo beans. They’ve harvested leaves from the plant and added extracts from these leaves on growing cancer cells. The extracts killed cancer cells, and were found to resemble other types of cancer drugs.

“We’re on the way to propose that there are chemicals inside this plant that should be studied as a real cancer drug,” said Golsteyn.

He and the members of his lab are in the third year of a project to investigate native plant species in Alberta.

They’re finding new plants to test just from having conversations with people.

“Usually these plants will be toxic,” said Golsteyn. “But the relationship between toxicity and medicine is always just the dose. If an animal eats it, it will eat too much of it.

“There’s a lot of good medicines out there that were first identified as toxic, but if you give the correct dose, these things could save lives. The No. 1, 2, or 3 cancer drugs are from plants.”

Anyone who has an interesting native pasture plant — no matter where they live in the province — can contact him, said Golsteyn. His email is [email protected].

About the author


Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."



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