A bitter-tasting vegetable that is a popular Guyanese dish may one day play a key role in fighting cancer.
With funding from a US$329,000 academic grant which falls under the University of Guyana Science and Technology Support Project (UGSTSP), local scientist Dr. Emmanuel Cummings, is examining the Momordica charantia, better known as bitter melon or corilla, to ascertain its capability to combat cancer.
The UGSTSP is being fuelled by a US$10 million loan from the World Bank to the Government of Guyana. It is being executed by the Ministry of Education and is intended to encourage the generation of knowledge products which will directly contribute to Guyana’s Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) and support the development of a broader research and knowledge generation.
Speaking of the potential of the vegetable, Dr. Cummings said that based on a number of literature search, corilla contains anti-cancer properties. “We thought it was a good opportunity for us to investigate some of the natural remedies and particularly looking at cancer because according to the data in Guyana the Amerindian community in Guyana, Regions One, Seven and Nine, (cervical) cancer is a major cause of death,” disclosed Dr. Cummings.
Dr. Cummings, who formerly held the position of Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Guyana, noted that the focus on cancer is crucial since it is currently the third leading cause of death in Guyana. To combat this disease, Dr. Cummings said that some in the Amerindian communities have been known to use ‘folkloric’ medicines or medicinal plants to treat their illnesses even as he expressed optimism that some have already been using corilla to treat cancer and other chronic diseases.
“Because this World Bank project of itself is dealing with the LCDS and all of that, we felt that it is kind of relevant and important that we look at how we can help to fight cancer; because for one it affects our people and it is an opportunity for us to investigate plants in our very own rainforest to see what medicinal properties they have,” explained Dr. Cummings.
Dr. Cummings has already done a number of research projects on Momordica charantia and has been able to establish the notion that corilla has anti diabetic properties. It is slowly being recognised as having anti-cancer properties as well.
The actual research work will be carried out at the University of Central Lancashire in England with Dr. Cummings being the principal investigator. A young lecturer, Karishma Jebu, who heads the Pharmacy Department at UG, will be the co-investigator. The external collaborator to the investigation is Professor Jaipaul Singh of the University Central Lancashire who has agreed to have the investigations conducted in his laboratory.
The investigative process, according to Dr. Cummings, will entail the growing of a variety of cancer cells including that of the breast, brain and prostate, and then testing these with known anti-cancer drugs that are well established and accepted.
The effectiveness of these drugs will then be compared to the anti-cancer properties of the Momordica Charantia. “This will be after we would have isolated and purified the active ingredient so that we can compare its effect on cancer cells in relation to other known anti-cancer drugs,” Dr. Cummings informed.
In emphasising his belief that history could be in the making, Dr. Cummings alluded to the fact that ‘vinblastine’, one of the most used drugs in chemotherapy was in fact isolated from the Madagascar Periwinkle (a flowering plant) many years ago.
“So we are hoping that this project will give us the opportunity to research the Momordica Charantia to look at its anti-cancer properties and hopefully, Guyana, the University of Guyana can come up with an anti-cancer drug that can also be accepted in conventional medicine,” said an optimistic Dr. Cummings.
“We are in for the long haul; this is not just an experiment we are doing and then close the book…We are looking to have it patented and then move on to clinical trials and then eventually accepted.”
The experimental aspect of the project commenced in June last year. It is expected that it will be completed by February 2016.
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