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UW Researcher Studies Anti-Cancer Resource Found in Big Horn Mountains

May 23, 2013

Wyoming's Big Horn Mountains contain a valuable resource that could help fight cancer.

Valtcho Jeliazkov, director of the University of Wyoming's Sheridan Research and Extension Center, found that accessions (members of a plant collection in a particular location) of Rocky Mountain juniper and creeping junipers contain relatively high concentrations of podophyllotoxin (PPT), which is a chemical used to facilitate production of the anti-cancer drugs etoposide, etopophos and teniposide.

“Those drugs are used to treat lung and testicular cancer, neuroblastoma, hepatoma and other tumors,” Jeliazkov says. “Other derivatives of PPT are used to treat psoriasis and malaria, and are being tested as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. PPT has also demonstrated antiviral activity.”

Jeliazkov says he must conduct more research.

“We do not know if the junipers in the Big Horn Mountains contain the highest amount of PPT,” he says. “We are sampling other areas of Wyoming and in other states. This is a continuing project; we might find accessions with higher PPT concentrations elsewhere.”

Jeliazkov and Lyn Ciampa, an undergraduate student at Sheridan College and UW, collected samples of Juniperus in 2011 and 2012 at elevations ranging from 4,500 feet to 10,000 feet.

Bonnie Heidel, a botanist at UW’s Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, identified representative subsamples and deposited them in the UW Rocky Mountain Herbarium.

PPT is currently extracted from the Himalayan mayapple (Podophyllum hexandrum Royle), an endangered species in Asia.

After the snow retracts, Jeliazkov will continue his bioprospecting work in the Big Horn Mountains and beyond this summer.

“Our goal is to develop juniper cultivars for commercial production of podophyllotoxin,” he says. “I believe we can develop a cultivar for commercial production of podophyllotoxin.”

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