A Common Flower With Uncommon Value

Two Northeastern professors studying the potential of the Madagascar periwinkle plant to yield new cancer-fighting drugs have received a $550,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to advance their research.

Carolyn Lee-Parsons, associate professor of chemical engineering, and Erin Cram, assistant professor of biology, are studying how the periwinkle regulates the production of medicinal alkaloids. They hope to develop a new gene silencing method to boost the production of these critical pharmaceutical compounds.

“The periwinkle plant produces highly effective anti-cancer drugs that block the growth of cancer cells,” explained Lee-Parsons. “But the low concentration of the drugs in the plant, along with the periwinkle’s slow growth rate, pose significant problems to efficient drug production.”

Cram noted that the high demand and high cost for these pharmaceuticals are one motivation for the research.

“We are hoping to better understand their biosynthesis and ultimately overproduce the compounds” using plant cell cultures, he said.

The investigators will integrate undergraduate and graduate students into their research team. The project offers valuable interdisciplinary opportunities for students focused on biochemical engineering, genetic engineering and molecular biology.

Additionally, the NSF grant includes support for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. Lee-Parsons and Cram will host K–12 teachers and students for hands-on research experiences in their laboratories.

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