A post-doctoral fellow at the University of Windsor is being recognized for the work she has done investigating the anti-cancer properties of several natural extracts, including those of dandelions.

Pamela Ovadje will receive the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation-Postdoctoral at a ceremony in Ottawa on Tuesday.

Mitacs is a non-profit organization that works with universities, governments and companies in Canada, to build partnerships to promote social and industrial innovation.

Close-up of a dandelion plant

Pamela Ovadje's research has examined the anti-cancer properties of several natural extracts, including dandelion roots. (Robin Brown/CBC)

Ovadje told CBC Radio's Windsor Morning that the story of the work she has been doing tracks back to 2009.

"We had information from an oncologist, a collaborator here in Windsor, who had patients that showed improvement after taking dandelion-root tea," Ovadje told Windsor Morning.

"And so, with a phone call, we decided to start studying what was in this tea that made patients respond to it, so we started digging up dandelions."

'A little bit skeptical'

Ovadje said she was "a little bit skeptical" that dandelions could have properties of this nature that weren't yet recognized.

"I figured dandelions are everywhere and if there was something to it, people would have found this out already," she said.

But she was surprised what she would learn.

Ovadje said groups of skin cell lines and leukemia cell lines were treated with dandelion root extract.

"It was a very simple, very crude extract and we saw very distinct differences between both cell lines," she said.

"There was induction of programmed cell death in the leukemia cell line, whereas the normal cells were healthy and fine."

That result was "eye-opening" for Ovadje and she said it opened the door for more studies looking at different cell lines "to see that dandelion root extract does induce a selective form of programmed cell death in cancer cells in a very distinct manner."

Ovadje is hopeful that the research she is doing can help in future cancer treatments.

"The problem with cancer is it's a very complicated disease," Ovadje said.

"It's your genomic system basically running amok. So normal signaling pathways have been changed, have been modified to sustain growth of cells that should not be alive."

Ovadje said that current therapies target some of these pathways, but she said a consequence is that a build-up of resistance can ensue.

"These cancer cells are very smart and so they decide: 'You know what? This pathway seems to be, you know, being blocked, so let's try a different pathway. Let's block that pathway and use a different pathway to survive.' And so you get resistance to treatment," she said.

Ovadje said she is hopeful that "using a natural extract with multiple targeting abilities can possibly at least halt the ability of cancer cells to modify pathways very easily."

Patients recruited

Earlier this year, researchers began recruiting 30 patients to take part in a study looking at the potentially cancer-killing abilities of dandelion root extract, taken from the common yellow yard weed.

The study will focus on patients with end stage blood related cancers including lymphoma and leukemia and take place at the Windsor Regional Cancer Centre.

The phase one clinical study, as it's called, is part of the Dandelion Root Project, aimed at showcasing scientific evidence for the safe and effective use of dandelion root extract and other natural health products for cancer therapy.

Phase one clinical trials were approved by Health Canada in 2012. Phase one trials do not reveal whether the substance being tested has a medicinal effect.

The goal of the trial is to set the right dose.