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Plant biologist’s research finds roadside weed kills breast cancer cells without damaging healthy ones

A plant biologist who has dedicated years of research to proving that a roadside weed could help successfully target breast cancer cells has produced her strongest evidence yet.

In her latest research, Professor Alessandra Devoto, from Royal Holloway, University of London, found that thale cress – also known as Arabidopsis thaliana or mouse-ear cress – stops cancerous cells growing without damaging healthy cells.

The weed belongs to the cabbage family and grows in Africa, Eurasia and Europe in disturbed habitats. Because it has a simple molecular structure, it has thus far been dismissed by scientists, and Professor Devoto admits that people ‘looked at me funny’ when she first began her research into it 14 years ago.

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Plant biologist Professor Alessandra Devoto, working with scientists at the University of Exeter and Brunel University London, found during her latest research that a roadside weed, commonly known as thale cress, targeted breast cancer cells during incubation but not healthy cells

In conjunction with scientists at the University of Exeter and Brunel University London, Professor Devoto treated the weed with a natural hormone found in jasmine that boosts how a plant reacts to a stressful environment.

After incubating the treated leaves with breast cells, she found that those which were cancerous stopped growing while healthy cells remained unaffected.

Professor Devoto’s research could now be used to help reduce the risks of invasive side effects in chemotherapy. Breast cancer is currently treated with surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy.

She told The Times: “The plant is very much like the Cinderella of the medicinal plant world – no one thought it was so special, but it has shown its true colours.”

She adds: “Everyone knows someone who has gone through chemotherapy and the severe side-effects it causes. This skinny little weed is a bit of a superhero, it stops the cancer cells but causes no other damage.”

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Professor Devoto says she’s faced cynicism during her studies, saying: “People started looking at me funny when I told them I was investigating the medicinal properties of the plant in 2006,” she said.

“People were sceptical. It has taken me 14 years of perseverance and persistence to achieve these results. I am incredibly proud of our team.”

The research has been published in New Phytologist.

Professor Alessandra Devoto, Royal Holloway, University of London