Wild tomatillo weed compounds may help fight cancer, study finds

Tuesday, May 08, 2012 by: Ethan A. Huff, staff writer
Tags: cancer, tomatillo, weeds

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(NaturalNews) A multidisciplinary research team from the University of Kansas (KU) has made a pioneering discovery in the realm of natural, plant-based cancer treatments. Preliminary findings published in the Journal of Natural Products (JNP) reveal that wild tomatillo (Physalis longifolia), a weed commonly found throughout the midwestern Great Plains and in other areas of North America, possesses at least 14 unique anti-cancer compounds that could one day change the way doctors approach cancer treatment.

During a bioprospecting project in South America back in the 1990s, Barbara Timmermann, a medicinal chemist and co-director of KU's Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, made an interesting discovery. A plant native to that particular region turned out to contain anti-cancer compounds, which prompted Timmermann, whose work involves identifying plants with medicinal properties, to search out ways to investigate it further.

But because of cost, distance, and other physical and financial barriers, Timmermann was never able to return to South America to perform the necessary analyses and finish her research. So she reportedly joined up with Kelly Kindscher, a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, to look for similar plants in the American Midwest. And much to their surprise, wild tomatillo turned out not only to contain the compound in question, but also to possess even more anti-cancer compounds than the original South American plant.

"Our research led us to Physalis longifolia, which is a fairly common plant throughout the Midwest," said Timmerman. "And from there, we discovered not only the molecule we were seeking, but also the 14 new compounds, most of which have turned out to be even more potent than the original one we were looking for. Discovery is a beautiful thing when it happens like that."

Animal trials show wild tomatillo can effectively mitigate, cure cancer

After first identifying wild tomatillo, Timmerman and Kindscher sought the help of Dr. Mark Cohen, a surgical oncologist and translational clinician scientist at the KU Medical Center, to analyze the plant. The three successfully identified the 14 compounds in question, known as withanolides, which in animal trials have already been shown to both fight and eradicate cancer cells.

According to Dr. Cohen's laboratory analysis, these 14 compounds target melanomas, thyroid cancer, head and neck squamous cell cancer, breast cancer, glioblastoma brain tumors, esophageal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and certain leukemias. When fed wild tomatillo, test mice with these and other cancers saw their tumors shrink drastically, and in some cases even completely dissolve, without any negative side effects or noticeable toxicity.

The breakthrough findings are so significant, in fact, that Timmerman and her team's work was featured at the recent University Research & Entrepreneurship Symposium in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The event is an exclusive, invite-only showcase of the nation's most promising new university-based technologies for industry leaders, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs (

"We're excited by the preliminary results," added Timmermann. "While our research is still in the early stages, we're optimistic that some of these 14 molecules could lead to new plant-based drugs or dietary supplements."

Currently, wild tomatillo extracts, powders, and supplements are not widely or commercially available to the public. But as research on wild tomatillo continues to emerge, it is expected that wild tomatillo products might soon hit the market in the form of all-natural, food-based supplements.

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