Article

Searching for new cures with Western and Traditional Knowledge

Traditional Indigenous Knowledge helps guide the Prairie to Pharmacy initiative’s quest to fill Canada’s gap in natural product research and find new cancer drugs in prairie plants
By
Alex Nguyen
Institution(s)
University of Lethbridge
Province(s)
Alberta
Topic(s)
Cancer/Oncology
Four people crouch on a yellow grass-covered hill looking down toward a specimen

Looking through the microscope, Haley Shade (above, far left) spotted something surprising: abnormal vesicles had appeared on the human cancer cells in her experiment.

Twenty-four hours before these fluid-filled sacs surfaced, she had treated the cells with an extract of iksi”tsi’kim’issttan, which is the Blackfoot name for a medicinal plant found in southern Alberta.

“The vesicles appeared almost like bubbles,” says Shade, a biology student at the University of Lethbridge. “Sometimes cancer cells will produce those to protect themselves,” she explains, so their appearance was a promising sign that the extract could have applications for cancer therapies. 

Shade’s choice of using iksi”tsi’kim’issttan wasn’t random. The plant grows in her home community of the Blood Reserve, which is part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and the largest reserve by land mass in Canada. Her grandfather, who is knowledgeable about Traditional Blackfoot medicine, had given her the plants in 2020 and asked for them to be tested in the lab, which she did that summer.

Shade’s research presents an approach to using both Western and Traditional Knowledge to understand the health application of plants. One of the unique features of Shade’s research is that she will only learn of the scientific or common name of the plant at the end of the study, after consultation with her community.  This is in contrast to other studies, where plants are identified by botanists at the start.

Her work is part of the Prairie to Pharmacy program, which the University of Lethbridge started in the mid-2010s to find chemicals derived from plants for cosmetic products or for medical use to treat diseases such as cancer. The program sometimes does this by bringing together Traditional Knowledge and Western scientific methods.

Canada among the least scientifically explored parts of the planet for natural medicines

The Prairie to Pharmacy initiative emerged out of the realization that Canadian ecosystems offer tremendous possibilities for research on natural products, says cell biologist Roy Golsteyn, the program’s director. 

It was a startling observation for Golsteyn, who has worked in Europe where natural materials are commonly investigated in laboratories and used in medicines and cosmetic products.

While the leading anti-cancer drug Taxol was developed from the Pacific yew, which is found mainly in B.C., in Golsteyn’s opinion, Canada has been overlooked as a source of medicinal plants because of the perception that it is cold and has less “luxurious plant growth” than the tropics.

It’s an ironic point of view since, as Golsteyn points out, the tougher it is for plants to survive, the more interesting are the chemical compounds they use to withstand extreme conditions.

“Here on the prairies, it gets extremely cold and in summer it gets very, very hot. In addition, plants can’t run away from the animals that want to eat them, so to survive these conditions they make chemicals.”

Luckily, the Prairie to Pharmacy initiative is not starting from scratch. “There's excellent botanical information about plant species in Canada, but relative to other countries there is little Western scientific information about their biomedical properties,” Golsteyn says. “But there's Traditional Knowledge.”

And since the University of Lethbridge sits next to the Blood Reserve and has strong connections with their community, he saw a partnership between the two communities to exchange information as a genuine opportunity. 

Medicinal plant research is not about validating Traditional Knowledge 

Researcher Layla Molina uses a CFI-funded cell imager to observe human cancer cells
Researcher Layla Molina uses a CFI-funded cell imager to observe human cancer cells treated with the prairie plant Pingue Rubberweed (Hymenoxy richardsonii) CREDIT: Roy Golsteyn

Golsteyn points out that the Prairie to Pharmacy program is careful not to exploit Traditional Knowledge. That information is only incorporated in the work when an Indigenous person participates in the research. 

Since the program began in 2013 there has been an emphasis on treating both systems of knowledge as “equally valid.”

“We’re not here to validate that Traditional Knowledge, but to bring in two sources of knowledge to enrich our understanding,” Shade says.

According to her, this value permeates throughout the research process. 

Before collecting plants, Shade says the research team does a Blackfoot offering of tobacco to “give thanks to the Creator and acknowledge that [they] are going to be using the plants for good use.” Researchers also consult the Blood Reserve’s community members, including healers and Elders, for their knowledge.

“We also obtain the Traditional Blackfoot name of the plants to demonstrate that these plants are known to another group of people and have been known to these people for a very long time,” she says.

Back at the lab, the plants are investigated using the Western scientific approach. Plant material provided by a community is tested only by students from that community to ensure the process is respectful.

The research team shares their findings with the Indigenous communities through symposiums or presentations in keeping with the Blackfoot tradition of sharing knowledge orally.

“I go back out to the Blood Reserve and share some findings of the preliminary research and more about the laboratory,” says Shade.

It’s an approach she plans to carry with her as she starts medical school next fall. “Now that I’ve experienced two forms of knowledge systems and how Traditional Knowledge can still serve us quite well, I think having patients who would like that type of healing is something that I would be an advocate for.”

Much more to learn about the potential for natural medicines from prairie plants

Close to seven years since it began, the Prairie to Pharmacy program still has much to learn, says Golsteyn.

To identify candidates to pursue for further research, his team uses a CFI-funded imager to watch if human cells change shape when exposed to plant extracts. 

“If we see that cancer cells become round in shape, then we might have a plant that stops cancer cells from dividing and a project of medical interest,” he says. 

“Our imager can also detect vesicles quite easily, especially in bone and brain cancer cells, which is also medically important and led us to Haley’s project.”

This same approach has helped them identify natural products with medicinal properties from the Buffalo bean (Thermopsis rhombifolia), Brown-eyed Susan (Gaillardia aristata) and Snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis). 

Golsteyn hopes to continue expanding the program’s partnership with the Blackfoot community. “We're trying to open up our doors a bit more for members of the Blackfoot community, including children who are interested in sciences and Traditional Knowledge. That part is really important.”