EDINBURG - Next time your restaurant meal is served with a piece of parsley, don't discard it as mere decoration - it could help prevent cancer.
At The University of Texas-Pan American, a biochemistry professor and some of his undergraduate and graduate students are studying whether the herb can prevent some forms of the disease.
Using a National Institutes of Health-funded grant through the Minority Biomedical Research Support program, Dr. Hassan Ahmad is investigating the functions of "glutathione S-transferase" (GST), an enzyme that protects cells against various toxins, including some carcinogens. His recent focus has looked at an active ingredient in the parsley plant - an inducer of GSTs - and its potential to prevent certain cancers in mammals.
"This enzyme clearly has been shown to remove the molecules that cause cancer," Ahmad said. "Should we be able to enhance this particular enzyme in any system - specifically the liver, stomach, lungs or other parts of the body - you can prepare that specific tissue to defend itself better against carcinogens."
That enzyme enhancement may come in the form of antioxidants, which now are undergoing animal testing. Indeed, the latest research has shown the enzyme enhancement to be effective in metabolizing certain carcinogens, thereby protecting body tissue, Ahmad said.
In addition, the ongoing antioxidant research may help understand the cause and prevention of cataracts, diabetes-related blindness and other eye debilitating diseases.
"For eyes, it is an established fact that cataracts or retina damage are caused by oxidation," Ahmad said. "Antioxidants can help delay cataracts from developing and this in itself is a significant contribution. Even if you delay it for 15-20 years, a person can live a normal life that much longer."
And Ahmad is not working alone. Since parsley research began in 1994, at least 19 UTPA students have been working directly or indirectly with the professor.
The first graduate student was Maria Tijerina, now a doctorate student at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore., who initiated the parsley related research.
A current graduate completing his master's work this year is Eduardo Saldivar, who has confirmed parsley produces an enzyme that efficiently metabolizes some carcinogens.
"By doing this research, people can get a better understanding of what fruits and vegetables can do for their health," said Saldivar of Rancho la Palangana in northern Mexico. "Personally, this has been a new learning experience for me, because I never had lab experience before. There are days that can be quite challenging, but you learn to stay focused and patient."
Other GST related research is being handled by a pair of pre-med seniors - Jeff Pierce of Corpus Christi and Tony Conley of McAllen.
"It's a unique challenge because for my work there's no procedure to follow," Pierce said. "You have to look up prior research, consult your professor and see what direction you're going to go in. It's a lot less structured than what you see in most undergraduate settings."
For Conley, the biomedical research provides an opportunity to help people with their quality of life. But it's not easy.
"Of all the biomedical research going on, cancer research is probably the most complex because cancer isn't one certain disease," Conley said.
"With all the cancer research now being done, we'll eventually be able to see some good, positive results. But it takes a lot of time and sacrifice," he said.
Due to the long approval period required by the Food and Drug Administration, it could be several years, if ever, before a drug limiting cancer growth appears on the market. But because parsley is a readily available vegetable, the use of molecules from a plant extract would not require as much regulatory control and testing, Ahmad said.
Unfortunately, some cancer cells treated by a drug develop a resistance, partially from the same GST that may prevent certain cancers.
New research in Ahmad's laboratory is looking at finding a specific inhibitor of GST to make chemotherapeutic drugs more effective.
"If you have the cancer cell GST activity diminished by specific inhibitors, then the drug will have a better chance to kill the (cancer) cells," Ahmad said. "That's our objective, and we're working hard to achieve it."
Outside of his GST and parsley research, Ahmad recently became the director of the South Texas Doctoral Bridge Program. Done in cooperation with the UT Health Science Center and University of Incarnate Word in San Antonio, the program promotes a progressive graduate program in biomedical sciences for underrepresented minorities.
Ahmad also has been recommended to chair the UTPA Environmental Health and Safety Council.
"It's an honor (to receive these appointments), but it also increases the responsibilities I have," Ahmad said. "I need these things for professional developments, and keeping the balance with research, teaching and family is very challenging."
Ahmad has been at UTPA since 1992. He obtained a bachelor of science in chemistry and master's and doctorate degrees in biochemistry from Aligarh Muslim University in Aligarh, India.