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Front Page » September 27, 2011 » Emery County News » Crews gather plant for cancer research
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Crews gather plant for cancer research


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A plant the United States Forest Service once considered a noxious weed may be beneficial for use in treating cancer patients. What is commonly called the skunk cabbage, corn lily or its proper name of Veratrum californicum is a source of cyclopamine.

Crews have been working in gathering the cancer fighting plant at the top of Huntington Canyon. The crew is in its third year on the Manti-LaSal.

After the roots of the plant are gathered from an area, then reseeding is taking place to return natural grasses and plants to the area. The crew leader said a mixture of nine different seeds are used to reseed the area. Kelly Olsen talked of the reseeding program, "We have placed fences around the areas which are being reseeded. The two year areas are really doing well and the regrowth is as high as the fence now. The areas we harvested last year are coming back really well too. The areas from this year's work will be reseeded at the end of the season. We can keep working for awhile yet until the weather forces us to stop."

Most of the crew this year is from Sanpete County. They work for Infinity the company that is developing this potential cancer treatment drug. The workers are hired from a staffing service in Orem. Ken Madsen is the crew supervisor. This is his third summer with the crew. He said each year a few of the workers have come back, but mostly it's new guys each year. They make pretty fair wages and during the early part of the season they see a considerable amount of overtime. Bart Olsen and Kelly Olsen operate the tractors. The supervisor at the scene is Josh Monson.

Monson explained the tractors have a lift attachment that pulls the plant out of the ground. It's not the actual plant itself they are after, but the root of the plant and the root bulb in particular.

Madsen explained what the workers do after the soil has been lifted. "The workers come in with their tools and they chop the top off the plant. They have to shake all of the dirt and rocks off the roots and clean the roots the best they can. The rocks and dirt can clog the machinery when the plant is processed. After the plants are gathered then they are dried at the turkey farms in Sanpete County. The plants hang and dry throughout the winter. Then they are shipped back east where they are processed further and broken down to where the useful chemical is extracted. It takes a lot of skunk cabbage to make a batch of medicine.

"We have a really good crew this year. They are hard workers. This is hard work, getting the roots of the plants out of the ground and cleaning them off. We keep telling ourselves that the cure for cancer could be starting here. That's really what it's all about. If a cure for cancer could be found, just knowing we're a part of that is great," said Madsen.

Monson said on this year's project they have 17 acres where they can harvest the plant. They have been moving around to select spots where the plants are the thickest. The plants are mostly dead now and drying out. The growing season in these alpine meadows is very short. Monson said the cold and wet weather long into June this summer, did put them behind schedule this season. They hope the weather will hold so they can continue to harvest. Monson said the knowledge of the properties of skunk cabbage and its effects came about quite by accident. A group of sheep had many deformed lambs with several types of birth defects. The situation was looked into and it was discovered the sheep had eaten skunk cabbage during the early stages of their pregnancy. Some of the offspring had only one eye in the center of their head which was the origin of the name of the drug, cyclopamine.

Madsen said they have a great working relationship with the forest service. The forest service is especially grateful for the reseeding process. The skunk cabbage doesn't have any value as a feed for animals and is toxic. So the new grasses being planted will be a future benefit for forest animals.

Kelly Olsen said skunk cabbage might not be good for a food for animals, but his men have used the stalk of the plant to rub on rashes and the rash clears up. The stalks before they dry out have a coating on them that's useful, kind of like the aloe vera plant explained Olsen.

Olsen is also grateful to be part of this project, it gives a chance for employment for the local men and it's all for a good cause.

Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a Massachusetts-based biopharmaceutical company is the company developing this product and they provided the following information about what they are doing. They are seeking new sources of a plant commonly known as corn lily, or Veratrum californicum, to help aid in the development of a potential new treatment for certain types of cancer. Also known locally as "cow cabbage" or "skunk cabbage," this plant has been found growing on hills and alpine meadows across the western United States, primarily in Utah, Idaho and Oregon and typically favors areas that are wet in the spring and 5,000 to 10,000 feet in altitude. Corn lily, which is often considered a "nuisance" weed, contains a key starting material for one of Infinity's investigational therapies, IPI-926, which targets difficult-to-treat cancers, such as pancreatic cancer and chondrosarcoma.

"It's remarkable to consider that this weed could ultimately be key to treating certain types of cancer for which there currently are no effective treatments," said Joe McPherson, Infinity's vice president of facilities and operations. "Our relationship with the U.S. Forest Service and several private landowners has enabled us to yield substantial sources of corn lily to date. As we move forward with further study and clinical development of IPI-926, we hope to work with additional landowners in these regions to harvest the plant, which could help patients for years to come."

Infinity has worked with the U.S. Forest Service since 2007 and has also established relationships with several private landowners in multiple states. The company has also invested more than one million dollars in the state of Utah through the provision of jobs and restoration of the land on which corn lily has been harvested.

"As cancer impacts all of us either directly or indirectly, it has been gratifying to work with Infinity on this project. In addition, we have appreciated the company's commitment to the community and the surrounding environment, including its efforts to restore the land after harvest," stated Pam Brown, Manti-La Sal National Forest.

IPI-926 belongs to a class of drugs known as Hedgehog pathway inhibitors. Research suggests that the Hedgehog pathway may play a key role in how and why certain types of cancer develop and grow. In healthy adults, the Hedgehog pathway is inactive in most cells. In people with certain cancers, the Hedgehog pathway is turned back on and helps promote cancer growth and survival. IPI-926 is designed to block the function of a key protein in the Hedgehog pathway and is being tested in clinical trials to treat multiple difficult-to-treat cancers.

Data from two clinical trials of IPI-926 were recently presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, Ill. In these clinical trials, IPI-926 was well-tolerated and showed clinical activity in patients with basal cell carcinoma and metastatic pancreatic cancer. Infinity is currently enrolling patients in two Phase 2 clinical trials of IPI-926, one in pancreatic cancer and one in chondrosarcoma.

Infinity encourages people who have significant sources of corn lily on their land to contact the company by calling 617-453-1015 or sending an email to veratrum@infi.com.

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September 27, 2011
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