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No longer the bane of wheat farmers, cow cockle now shows promise as a cash crop. The plant is rich in saponins — soap-like substances with medicinal potential. NRC research suggests that farmers could someday harvest cow cockle as an ingredient for anti-cancer pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals.
What a difference a few decades can make. Thirty-odd years ago, Prairie wheat farmers regarded cow cockle (in Latin, Saponaria vaccaria) as a noxious weed that contaminated crops and sickened cattle that ate it. Today the NRC Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon is investigating cultivating it as a cash crop to produce anti-cancer treatments.
Cow cockle is rich in saponins — soap-like substances capable of bonding oil and water. Similar, but rarer, plant-based saponins harvested from tree barks and cactus plants in the Southern Hemisphere are now sold commercially in small lots as ingredients in soft drinks and salad dressings.
More importantly, they're being investigated as possible human anti-cancer drugs and vaccine adjuvants. Research by Dr. John Balsevich's team in Saskatchewan indicates that the native cow cockle's abundant saponins, when purified, show some promise for breast, prostate and colon cancer treatment.
"It is at a relatively early stage," he says. "Basically, we've filed a patent to protect our IP (intellectual property), and we're continuing to investigate these compounds." Dr. Balsevich says modern tilling and weed control practices have reduced cow cockle's threat as a weed. Older farmers recall it with dislike, but rarely find it in their fields anymore. NRC research suggests that farmers could someday plant and harvest cow cockle as a profitable ingredient for naturally sourced anti-cancer pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals.
The NRC team has been refining cow cockle saponins and studying their action against human cancer cell lines in the laboratory. The researchers have found that some forms are useful as pharmaceuticals on their own, while others show promise as adjuvants — compounds that when added to known drugs, amplify those drugs' effects.
A traditional Chinese medicine
Dr. Balsevich became interested in cow cockle when he read that traditional Chinese medicine has long used it to make medicine, called Wang Bu Liu Xing, to regulate menstruation and treat breast infections as well as some types of cancer. He reasoned that centuries of its use as a traditional medicine could be seen as a preliminary toxicology trial for new cow cockle-based drugs. A small number of western scientific studies in the past 20 years seemed to confirm what Chinese herbalists believed.
Refined saponins from other sources are already used as adjuvants in veterinary vaccines and some are undergoing human trials elsewhere. But Dr. Balsevich's team has found that cow cockle produces far more saponins than other plants do, and in a sustainable and cost-effective manner. In agronomic tests, cow cockle grows well as a prairie crop, and is enough like canola that the same commercial farm equipment can be used to plant and harvest it.
One acre of cow cockle yields a metric tonne of seed and 20 or more kilograms of saponins. What's more, about 60 percent of the seed, by weight, is made of an unusually fine-grain starch, which could make it attractive to commercial cosmetics, food and inkjet dye industries. Trace compounds with other commercial potential are being investigated by other research groups at NRC.
"A lot of our preliminary work with human cancer cell lines looks pretty interesting," says Dr. Balsevich. "We've got something that we think can be developed into a drug. It may be a long shot, but if it works, it will be easy to grow and produce these compounds."
He adds that drug development is a multi-year, multi-hundred-million-dollar project, "which is where our collaborations with industry will be crucial to see these high-value products brought to the market."