After earning a PhD in organic chemistry, a post-doc position in a cancer lab helped Rajesh Agarwal make the transition to cancer science. Now 30 years later, Agarwal is one of the most accomplished scientists looking to naturally occurring compounds for the prevention and control of cancer. Here we talk with Dr. Agarwal about his work.
C3: In last few years, you’ve published exciting findings with compounds derived from milk thistle, grape seed and bitter melon, to name a few. This work has been featured in top journals including JNCI, Cancer Research, etc. Do you think it’s been difficult to find acceptance for your work within the scientific community specifically because you work with “natural” compounds?
Agarwal: Actually, you wouldn’t know it but many of the cancer medicines now in use were derived from sources in nature. Just because a compound comes from a flower or a fruit or a melon, doesn’t mean that it is any more or less potent than compounds that were engineered
from scratch in a laboratory.
C3: So is it safe to say that eating or otherwise using these natural compounds can help reduce the cancer risk for healthy people and help the prognosis for people diagnosed with cancer?
Agarwal: Let me tell you a story. After we published the most recent article on bitter melon [which was found to selectively kill pancreatic cancer cells], I had literally hundreds of phone calls, hundreds of e-mails. But I didn’t have one call from a person unaffected by cancer. Everyone—he or she or a loved one—was having a pancreatic cancer issue.
People who are suffering have more connection with this kind of research. So it’s much easier to study the effectiveness of these compounds in
treating cancer than it is to study their use in prevention. So yes, we know that these compounds are active in treating cancer. We have population evidence to show they’re active in preventing cancer, but proving their effectiveness in prevention is much more difficult.
C3: You’ve been at this 30 years now. In that time, have you seen the culture of studying “natural” compounds change?
Agarwal: Certainly. It used to be that we would simply test compounds for activity—we would treat cancer cells with silibinin [from milk thistle] or grape seed extract and notice how the cancer cells or animal models were affected. Recently, we’ve seen a major shift toward asking not only if compounds are effective but why they are effective. The thing is, cell biology and molecular biology keep advancing and now we have the tools to ask questions we couldn’t ask before. We’re looking at how these compounds work—what genes and pathways within the cell they target—so that we can refine these treatments.
C3: How is the funding climate for research with natural compounds?
Agarwal: So, you know, I just came back from the meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research. Everyone there was worried about funding. It’s a hard climate and the number of grants being funded is dropping really fast. It’s not a matter of your compound—it’s hard for everyone. I think it’s especially hard for young scientists, but I started my grant 20 years ago and my lab continues to work with three active R01 grants. I’ve learned to keep working on what you want to study—to go where your interest and expertise lead. As a scientist, my job is to find anything that could eventually be effective in people. That’s my goal anyway.