Young Scientists Look To Traditional Herb For Cancer Cure

Jun 20, 2013

9th graders Nora White, Arasely Rodriquez and Priscilla Martinez make up the team of young scientists looking to cure cancer with traditional herbs.
Credit Rita Daniels

Over the past year, a group of Taos High School students have been literally trying to cure cancer. Specifically mouth cancer caused by chewing tobacco.  After long hours toiling over laboratory equipment, their extracurricular endeavor has paid off.  The multi-ethnic crew, who call themselves The Wyrmies, have been chosen as finalists in the E-Cybermission competition for their use of the traditional Native American herb Cota.

Almost everyday after school, during the summer months, and even on weekends, depending on how the experimentation is going, ninth graders Priscilla Martinez, Arasely Rodriquez and Nora White can be found hanging out in their old middle school science laboratory.  They say it's their home, where they come to explore their passions. Recently, they have been experimenting on earth worms whose tissue is almost identical to human mouth tissue.  

Priscilla points to a photograph and explains it shows the epidermal tissue of a healthy worm. But many of the creatures were exposed to chewing tobacco.  The Wyrmies then paid very close attention, looking to see if any tumors or edemal swelling would take place. According to Priscilla, it happened a lot faster than what they expected. Within a mere eight hours, the worms began to  mutate. "And then you get to see the tumors," said Arasely. "And they are pretty gross."

"That is the tobacco," says Nora, pointing to a picture.  "It's an unhealthy coloring and there's also some epidermal swelling and some anomalies that are already occurring."

"And here it gets darker which means its decaying, mal-forming and becoming more diseased," notes Arasely. "You can tell where the blood has been coming to pool and then this is a reproductive tract.  Right here you can tell that there's really big discoloration."

The project came about when the students heard about the E-Cybermission science competition that challenged pupils to develop solutions to real-world issues in their own community. Arasely says they just looked around at the behaviors and habits of some of their peers, and a light bulb went off. "Teenagers are being more influenced to use chewing tobacco because mostly you see those infomercials about the smoking, but they never really show anything about the chewing tobacco."

According to the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Council, chewing tobacco contains 28 cancer-causing agents and 70 percent of people who use it develop serious pre-cancerous mouth sores. 

Priscilla is from Taos Pueblo where the traditional herb from the daisy family, Cota, is used as a cure all. "We gather it yearly. It's just used a lot for mouth sores and tooth aches. When your teeth are coming in and it really hurts, you drink the tea and it helps take down the pain and it's known for a lot of different uses already, so we wanted to see if we could find more uses to it."

The potent herb was given as a concentrated tea to the earthworms in the experimental test group. Nora, whose mother is a dentist, said they had a hunch it would be an effective treatment.  "Well, in theory it would work because the antioxidants inside of the Cota flower, luteolin and coumarin, where rumored to have anti-tumor properties.  In the hypothesis, we expected the tumors to go down, but when it actually happened it was like a really exciting aha moment!"

Twenty four hours after the Cota was introduced, there were already noticeable differences in the worms' tumors. "We learned that the Cota, when feed to the worms with tumors from tobacco, reduced the tumors by 90 percent," said Nora. "In that picture you can see the epidermal blisters and swelling going down.  The worm is almost a healthy coloring."

Apparently when some of their classmates who chew tobacco saw the results, it really grossed them out and made them rethink what they were doing to themselves. "I know someone that does it (chews) and they were like nope, not gonna do it anymore," said Arasely. "They just stopped and it was like okay."

When news came that the young ladies had won a National spot as finalists in the E-Cybermission competition they were filled with excitement, shock, and for Priscilla, joyous tears. "I was so happy I cried!"

The team has their sights set on eventually marketing the herb to the masses. The Cota plant grows like a weed in arid climates, requiring little water or cultivation and they believe it could be a cheaper option for people with mouth cancers.  Arasely said they even have a dream of getting the go ahead from the Food and Drug Administration to create a supplement. "If we do get it FDA approved, we can market it and make it available for people all around the world ."

As to what the results demonstrate regarding youth innovation, Priscilla says it speaks volumes.  "It shows that even though we're still High School students, we're coming up with ways to cure a commonly occurring effect on the community.  People are constantly becoming addicted to the chewing tobacco, so being able to help them, at least in a way, it's pretty amazing."

The Wyrmies are one of 16 teams from across the US who will be traveling to Washington D.C. this weekend to present their findings at the E-Cybermission finals.