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.