An Iowa woman’s experience with gardening growing up and a desire to help her sister has led to research in producing cancer drugs from common plants. Jackie Shanks, a native of Granger, was a graduate student in California in the late 1980s when she learned her sister had the disease. Shanks says she went to the library to find out about chemotherapy drugs. She says she learned about vinblastine and vincristine which is used for lymphomas and comes from the leaves of plants. She says the plants produce a very low yield of the drugs, making them very expensive. Shanks, who is now a professor of chemical engineering at Iowa State University, decided to work with plants even though she had not plant background.She says she grew up helping her mother Anna Vanni in their three-acre garden and so even though she had no formal training in plant biology, she went ahead with the research. Shanks’ work with root cultures of periwinkle plants studying the 30 step process used to produce the vital drugs. She says they’re making progress. She says they’ve been able to produce in a tissue culture system a compound that’s six steps away from the two cancer drugs. She says they’ve made a lot of progress, but are still a long ways away from their research goal. Shanks says it could still be years before they are able to make the drugs in larger quantities. One goal has been achieved as her sister who was the original inspiration for the research is fully recovered. She says her sister is cancer free and now has two children and is an accomplished elementary education teacher. Shanks says she has some molecular biology tools available now that weren’t available when she started, and that should help her research.
You are here: / / ISU uses love of plants to research cancer drugs