… Professor of Functional Zoology and Cancer Cell Biology, who is helping to develop a world-class cell culture laboratory in Bolivia. It is part of a SIDA-funded project to study how medicinal plants can influence cancer cells.
“This is the third in a line of SIDA-funded projects which I have now joined as a cancer researcher. Work is already being carried out in Lund on isolating active substances from medicinal plants, led by Olov Sterner, dean of the Faculty of Science. The collaboration follows the ‘sandwich model’, i.e. Bolivian students divide their time between Sweden and Bolivia. In Sweden, they have been able to use our laboratories to conduct research on various natural substances from traditional Bolivian medicine, but in the long-term, it is important that they can carry out the research themselves in Bolivia and implement what they have learnt in Sweden at home.”
You are also involved in doing research on medicinal plants in Bolivia?
“Yes, they are working to develop understanding of the fantastic flora that they have. In Bolivia, there are still tribes that live very close to nature and they have tremendous knowledge of medicinal plants. The subject has the posh name ethnopharmacology. I visited Bolivia recently and we went out into the jungle with a guide who knew a lot about these plants, which was fascinating. What is special about many plants is that they grow at high altitudes, over 2 500 metres. The UV radiation to which they are exposed makes their molecules special. The low oxygen levels may also have an effect.”
How can this knowledge be used?
“We need new drugs to treat a range of conditions. Instead of inventing new molecules, we can use the resources and existing knowledge of medicinal plants and how they are used. In the project, chemists have worked to isolate substances from unique plants in Bolivia. We have now reached the stage at which we are going to investigate what effect they have and how they work.”
How are you helping the University of La Paz?
“I am helping to establish a laboratory for cell culture, which is being led by my licentiate student Wendy Soria, who is from Bolivia. The long-term aim is to create a world-class lab. However, we have to start on a small scale and develop it gradually, because resources are limited. Nonetheless, there is a lot that can be done with quite simple methods if it is done right from the start. I am the only person in Lund to run a course in cell culture and I held a three-day course in Bolivia that was highly appreciated.”
Your own research is on breast cancer. How does that come into the picture?
“We are studying how substances isolated from medicinal plants affect cancer cells, especially the most ‘dangerous’ sort, known as cancer stem cells. Our aim is to find substances that not only kill the bulk cells in a tumour, but that really get rid of all cancer cells, including the cancer stem cells.”
Text & Photo: Jonas Andersson