Cancer researcher plucking wild flowers

University of Lethbridge professor studying the potential medicinal qualities of yellow buffalo beans

Cheerful, yellow buffalo beans are a common sight in roadside ditches, pastures, disturbed soil and river coulees across the southern Prairies.

However, the seemingly innocuous plants might contain effective weapons against cancer.

Dr. Roy Golsteyn, a cancer researcher and biology professor at the University of Lethbridge, did not have to look far to find buffalo beans, also known as golden beans, for further study. The hardy plants proliferate the river coulees just outside university doors.

When he and fellow researcher Dr. Sophie Kerneis-Golsteyn investigated further, they found that extracts from the plants’ leaves killed cancer cells.

“The compound that’s in the leaf is really, really interesting. It’s not a super toxic plant on cancer cells. However, when it does kill cancer cells, it does it in a way that’s somewhat unusual,” said Golsteyn.

“It’s known that that type of result is important in some human cancers. All human cancers are different, but some of them depend on something that probably this plant can inhibit. That’s what we’re hoping.”

As research projects go, picking wild flowers is likely one of the more pleasant tasks involved. Golsteyn and his assistants picked 10 kilograms of buffalo beans, all obtained on nearby university property.

“As it turns out, especially last year and this year, buffalo beans were pretty abundant,” he said.

“I would think your readers are pretty familiar with it. I didn’t know much about it until we started working on it and then I realized its actually quite well known.”

Golsteyn first considered studying buffalo beans, also known as Thermopsis rhombifolia, after hearing a First Nations elder talk about the medicinal properties of plants at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, a national heritage site near Fort Macleod, Alta.

Later, he came across a case study done about 20 years ago involving 23 children who became seriously ill after eating buffalo beans.

“The symptoms that it causes are not unlike certain types of chemotherapy — fatigue, nausea, weakness and some tissue damage,” he said.

Golsteyn’s assistant, Lucas Curtolo Poiani, recently separated the flowers, leaves and stems of the dried plants.

The leaves were prepared for shipment to the Pierre Fabre Laboratories in France.

“They really have the expertise to pull out the chemicals, although we used to do that ourselves here, but at this scale it’s best done by them,” Golsteyn said.

“We’re lucky. They are the experts in what’s called phytochemistry. When they get a plant in their building, they know what to do with it, so we’re not going to lose any time.”

Pierre Fabre has made other cancer-fighting drugs, he added.

Golsteyn and Kerneis-Golsteyn’s research on the buffalo bean has been peer-reviewed and the results have been published, but more tests are needed.

Research projects on other promising cancer-fighting drugs have come to abrupt ends because of unforeseen circumstances, said Golsteyn, so in typical scientific fashion, he is reluctant to state any absolutes.

“Now we’re pretty sure we’re on the right path” is as far as he will go.

The promise of the buffalo bean has increased his interest in the medicinal properties of other prairie plants.

That research gets him and his colleagues out of their windowless, concrete-walled lab. In addition to wildflowers, he is trying to collect information from ranchers and First Nations people about prairie plants.

“I’d be interested to hear what they know. Sometimes we get clues from interesting places. There’s a lot of plants out there.”

Golsteyn can be contacted at 403-332-4553 or at

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