A University of Lethbridge professor and his students will once again spend the summer collecting wildflowers and plants, which could aid in the fight against cancer.

For the last four years, biochemist Roy Golsteyn has been studying the brown-eyed Susan and other native plant species and screening them for medicinal properties.

"It sounds like fun and actually, it is," he told The Calgary Eyeopener.

"Many of the native plant species in southern Alberta are known to be toxic, or they're known not to be eaten by animals, and yet their medical and scientific properties haven't really been studied, so we thought there was an opportunity for some interesting research."

The brown-eyed Susan was "one of the first ones that came up as a pretty interesting plant," he said.

"We have a number of relatively simple tests which we can see whether chemicals that come from anywhere, really, might or might not have an anti-cancer activity," he said.

No cure on horizon

Chemicals from the brown-eyed Susan were tested and pretty quickly showed interesting and promising signs, said Golsteyn .

That doesn't mean a cure is on the horizon just yet.

"We're looking, really, for two things. One: we're looking to advance the scientific knowledge about cancer, the goal for that is the more we learn about it, the easier it will be to fix those problems," he said. "The second thing is to maybe find new chemicals that might have the right type of properties and they themselves can be used as anti-cancer medicines hopefully in the future."

brown-eyed Susan southern Alberta wildflower

The Gaillardia aristata, better known as the brown-eyed Susan, is being studied by researchers from the University of Lethbridge. (Roy Golsteyn)

Earlier in his research, Golsteyn looked at the buffalo bean.

"We actually ended up working with a pharmaceutical company in France," he said. "That one has a pretty interesting chemical that has some activity that might be more anti-viral than anti-cancer."

He also works with Indigenous groups in the province to learn about their traditional uses for plants.

"That was another reason for starting. We had some confidence this project might work because we knew the First Nations, the Aboriginal people who lived in southern Alberta, they were using the plants for their health needs … so that was a clue there might be some interesting chemicals within these plants."

Mix of prairie and mountain

Most of the searching this summer will happen in the Porcupine Hills area.

"There's a good mix of some of the alpine plants that come down from the Rockies, and some of the prairie plants that come up from some of the warmer areas," he said. "And that area, because it's a little bit cooler, it extends our season."

Buffalo bean wildflower southern Alberta

The Thermopsis rhombifolia, better known as a buffalo bean, is being studied by researchers from the University of Lethbridge, looking for medicinal properties in wildflowers of southern Alberta. (Roy Golsteyn)

The picking is done during the flowering season, explained Golsteyn, as that's when it's easiest to identify the plants.

"We're not certain for all the flowers, but it's likely they're producing the best chemicals just as they're about to flower rather than after, because they need to protect themselves with these chemicals," he said.

With files from The Calgary Eyeopener