Tomatillo plant shows promise in cancer treatment

Kansas University researchers have discovered 14 new compounds in a wild plant that are showing anti-cancer properties in preliminary tests. The wild tomatillo, whose formal scientific name is Physalis longifolia, can be found in Kansas and throughout North America.

The latest addition to a pharmaceutical garden at Kansas University will be a tomatillo plant with recently discovered chemical compounds that could lead to new cancer treatments.

The garden outside KU’s new School of Pharmacy building was planned by Kelly Kindscher, a senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey, and Barbara Timmermann, a KU distinguished professor of medicinal chemistry. Those two also were co-authors of the new tomatillo plant research.

Students and visitors to the pharmacy building are now greeted by signs that identify the garden and the plants inside.

“It’s right there past the food court,” Kindscher said. “They’re going to see it.”

The plants in the garden all have medicinal properties, including several echinacea plants, plants with herbs used in food and a separate bed dedicated to Lucius E. Sayre, the pharmacy school’s first dean, who maintained a similar garden in the 1920s.

Timmermann uses the garden for her classes, and to show how plant research can lead to new drugs. The garden joins a bigger native medicinal plant garden at the KU Field Station north of the city.

Pharmacy and plants have a long history, and many of today’s drugs have their origins in plants.

The 14 new compounds in the tomatillo plant, Physalis longifolia, were found after Timmermann decided to see if the researchers could find plants with a chemical makeup similar to a known plant from South America that showed promise in fighting cancer without toxic side effects.

They found a match in the tomatillo plant, which had those compounds, along with some new ones, too. The plant is essentially a weed, Timmermann said, but it can be found all over the state and the Midwest.

“This was such a surprise to us,” she said.

Timmermann said the research on the plant is one of 31 projects that will be presented at Harvard University’s Research and Entrepreneurship Symposium in an effort to find potential investors for the research.

Now, the compounds found in the tomatillo plant are being tested on animals, and it will be years before researchers know if they will be effective in humans, Timmermann said.

She said KU has applied for patents on the compounds, however, and could stand to benefit financially if the research results in a successful drug.

Kindscher and Timmermann are working with a professor at KU Medical Center on the research.