SEP 28, 2017 03:17 PM PDT
Compound in South American Plant Kills Cancer Stem Cells
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Ambrosia arborescens | Image credit:

The extract in a plant commonly used in traditional medicine in South America has cancer-fighting potential, scientists report.

For the study, scientists at Lund University in Sweden, focused on cancer stem cells. These cells have all the properties of normal stem cells, including the ability to self-renew and differentiate into other cells. Cancer stem cells can also withstand more damage, which allows them to survive for longer and proliferate. Collectively, these properties allow cancer stem cells to resist a variety of therapies. That’s why researchers believe that targeting these cancer stem cells is at the heart of finding a cure for cancer.

To target cancer stem cells, the research team focused on a compound known as sesquiterpene lactones (SLs) damsin. This compound is found in Ambrosia arborescens, a plant native to the Andes in South America. For years, the plant has been used for medicinal purposes by the South American locals. Scientists have confirmed the plant has analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties.

When researchers exposed the damsin compound to three different breast cancer cell lines, they found that cancer mobility and cell division was slowed, even at low concentrations. Furthermore, the team showed that the compound reduced the number of cancer stem cells capable of proliferating and expanding the tumor size. The same results were achieved when the team tested a synthetic version of the SL compound, called ambrosin.

"Both the natural and the synthetic substances inhibit the growth and spread of cancer stem cells in breast cancer cell lines. This is the first time that it has been successfully proven by research," said Dr. Stina Oredsson, professor at Lund University.

Based on these preliminary cellular results, the team believes the compound could hold the same promise in more complex animal studies.

"Different cancer cells have different abilities to survive chemotherapy. Cancer stem cells can be considered the most dangerous type of cancer cells, as they appear to have an inherent resistance to the chemotherapeutic drugs used today. Our results can contribute to the development of new drugs against cancer stem cells but, unfortunately, it takes a long time to get from basic research to usable drugs," says Stina Oredsson.

The results highlight the a growing trend towards plant-based medicines. Recently, several studies have shown that that plant-based compounds can thwart the growth and progression of cancer cells. In particular, compounds in tree nuts, tomatoes, and strawberries have the capacity to reduce cancer growth in the lab. Collectively, these findings mark a starting point for further investigation into more natural therapies for cancer.

Additional sources: Lund University via Science Daily

  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at

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