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POSTED: 11/29/13, 2:07 PM EST | UPDATED: ON 11/29/2013
New Haven >> In the little laboratory she built from scratch, Sarah Crawford is working on a Christmas fern miracle.
Not that she’d ever use the word “miracle” to describe the cancer research she’s been conducting at Southern Connecticut State University for the past 17 years. She’s much too measured for that. Besides, she says the media seems to tout a new cure for cancer every other week.
Yet, it’s undeniable what Crawford has accomplished outside the realm of high profile, big money cancer research. Not only is she rethinking basic assumptions about the disease, she recently was granted a patent for a Christmas fern extract that shows potential for treating brain cancers.
The extract, used in a cocktail with the chemotherapy drug carmustine and curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, killed nearly half of the cancer cells in animal tumors during pre-clinical testing. Crawford said that within a year, she’ll be ready to approach pharmaceutical companies and large research labs about doing a human study.
Not bad for a college professor without major funding or a staff to write grant proposals.
“There needs to be a place for the individual researcher in science,” Crawford said. “You have to be able to close a door, sit down and think something through. But you also have to be willing to do without the money and be able to improvise.”
In her case, that means going to state parks on the weekends to gather Christmas ferns and using chicken eggs to test tumor treatments.
Actually, it took a fair bit of gumption just to envision her lab at SCSU in the first place. She’d come to the university in 1993 to teach genetics, raise her two young daughters and figure out what sort of cancer research she’d like to do elsewhere.
But then she got to thinking.
“I walked into this sort of broken down room, and the thought occurred to me, ‘You could have your own lab right here. Do the research you want to do.’” The lab opened — with no fanfare — in 1996.
Her focus, she decided, would be on drug resistance. Why don’t certain cancers respond well to treatment? Is it because we treat cancer only as an acute disease rather than a systemic one?
Crawford began studying the use of aspirin and anti-inflammatory drugs on tumors. She found that solid tumors responded slowly to large amounts of aspirin.
Then she broadened her approach and looked at plant products with high antioxidant activity. That’s how she arrived at Christmas ferns.
“They’re primitive plants,” Crawford said. “They have a very different biochemical composition. These plants were some of the first to evolve, and they’re very successful.”
She and her students started very simply, grinding up ferns and looking for the key ingredients. They discovered that in concert with curcumin and carmustine, the ferns produced far better cancer-fighting results on tumors than when any of the three substances was used alone.
Crawford applied for a patent more than six years ago; she now shares it with Erin Boisvert, one of her former students.
Of course, this is only the beginning of the process for Crawford. She has plans to tinker with the drug cocktail and test it on pancreatic tumors.
“I always temper my excitement with reality,” she said. “I’m not going to rest until we, as a research community, are able to effectively deal with this disease. We have to find a cure.”
Crawford’s motivation stems in part from a childhood experience.
At the age of 9, she spent two weeks in the children’s ward of a New York City hospital. It was Christmas time, and Crawford met children dealing with cancer, kidney disease and other dire ailments. One child died while Crawford was on the ward.
“It was one of the major experiences of my childhood. It changed my life,” Crawford said. “I’ll never forget walking out of there and knowing I would be studying disease for the rest of my life.”
By now, more than 100 students have come through Crawford’s little lab. In 2015, she’ll move to a brand new building on campus, the Academic and Laboratory Science Building.
But don’t expect her to take on expensive research habits.
“It certainly has its place, but that focus on funding keeps you thinking inside the box,” Crawford said.