KU’s cancer-fighting plant research program losing its key funding

A successful plant research program at Kansas University that had uncovered molecules with cancer-fighting properties is trying to find new sources of money after a Kansas Bioscience Authority-backed organization pulled out of its funding commitment.

Barbara Timmermann, a KU distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry and lead person on KU’s Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, said she had never experienced anything like the premature funding cuts in her more than 30 years of research work.

“The agencies always respect what they were committed to,” she said. “This hurts a lot.”

The program had been funded for $5 million over five years from Heartland Plant Innovations, one of the KBA’s centers of innovation. Those organizations are independently operated from the KBA but received startup funds from the state-funded bioscience authority.

This year, KU project leaders said, they heard the program would no longer be funded after June, which is the end of the third year of funding. About half of the original funding commitment had been awarded. The program’s leaders were not given a reason for the funding cuts, Timmermann said.

The program’s research focused on using native Kansas plants to find new molecules that held the potential to fight diseases, including cancer. One such molecule, found in a wild tomatillo plant, had showed enough promise in fighting cancer that KU researchers applied for patents on the compounds.

Forrest Chumley, president and CEO of Heartland Plant Innovations, said as his center received fewer funds from the KBA in recent years, “we’ve been forced to scrutinize more and more the projects we’re involved in.”

The center is still funding other projects, Chumley said, and is shifting its focus toward a project that is focused on genetic ways to cut down on the time it takes to create new varieties of wheat.

Chumley said the funding decision was not based on the outcomes of KU’s project, which he said were showing promise.

“I am quite proud of what the team accomplished, and we do have hopes for them to continue with other sources of funding,” Chumley said.

He said that the kinds of pharmaceutical developments being made at the medicinal plant program would have required a larger investment from Heartland Plant Innovations than it could have provided.

“We accepted guidance from the KBA that we should not be a drug development company,” Chumley said.

Kelly Kindscher, a botanist at the Kansas Biological Survey, also worked on the KU project, which supported about 12 staff members. The project’s leaders are looking for ways to support the people who have stayed behind, he said.

“We’re pretty excited about what we were doing,” Kindscher said. “We were making discoveries.”

The medicinal plant program had good data, a good publishing record and its participants had been invited to give presentations around the world, Timmermann said.

“Everything was pointing toward great successes, and then they pulled the rug from under our feet,” Timmermann said.

The program will still have some limited funds, based on funding saved up so far and bills still due to be paid from HPI. Enough funding still exists to allow for the continued maintenance of medicinal plant gardens outside the KU School of Pharmacy building and at a research garden north of Lawrence.

Timmermann said she is working to secure new sources of funds for the project, spending this week in Washington, D.C., meeting with officials at the National Institutes of Health with plans to return again to Washington in July.

“You can’t make progress,” she said. “Until you get some new money, you can’t work.”