Carolyn Dadabay is a drug prospector.
She's searching for chemical compounds that will boost the effectiveness of medicines like those used to attack cancer cells in chemotherapy.
She hopes to find them among the millions of sagebrush plants dotting the desert of Southern Idaho. Wild animals are her guide.
"We are the center of sagebrush diversity," said Dadabay, an associate professor of chemistry at The College of Idaho in Caldwell, where she has taught for the past decade.
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Sagebrush, a plant many never give a second thought to as they drive across the state, is a powerhouse of chemicals. Each plant carries hundreds of different compounds - some in strong doses - developed over millions of years to help the plants withstand grazing animals, harsh desert conditions and exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun.
"Sagebrush makes the best chemist in the world," Dadabay said.
She squeezed sagebrush research into her summers and spare time until June, when she was awarded a five-year, $764,000 grant from the Idaho Institutional Development Award Network for Biomedical Research Excellence. The network will distribute $16.5 million in National Institutes of Health money over the next five years in Idaho, said Carolyn Hovde Bohach, a University of Idaho professor of microbiology. Bohach oversees the network.
One of the goals is "to study a real problem or try to answer a real-world problem and try to engage students in it," Bohach said.
Dadabay uses several undergraduate students to help gather sagebrush samples and process them to extract chemical compounds for study.
She and a couple of her students spent an afternoon last week at Bonneville Point, 10 miles east of Boise, snipping samples of sagebrush to take back to Dadabay's lab.
All sagebrush isn't equal. Some varieties have more and different chemical compounds than others. Pygmy rabbits, sage grouse and pronged horn antelope - which dine on sagebrush regularly - seem to sense chemical differences and stay away from plants with chemicals that could be too strong or that could stay in their systems long enough to harm them.
Wildlife eat different parts of sagebrush. Pygmy rabbits chomp on leaves and stems, said Jennifer Forbey, an associate professor of biology at Boise State University who is working with Dadabay. Sage grouse eat only the leaves, because they can't break the stems with their beaks. Many critters cannot tolerate the chemicals and leave sagebrush alone.
Bite marks, bird droppings or other evidence that wildlife has fed - or not fed - on a sagebrush plant give Dadabay and her students clues to a bush's strength of chemicals.
"Sagebrush has gotten to be such a good chemical producer that it now produces chemicals, we think, that actually prevent animals from getting rid of the toxins," providing a defense against the plants being eaten, Dadabay said.
That could help cancer victims undergoing chemotherapy. As cancer becomes more aggressive, cancer cells develop better ways of rejecting medications. "If we can find the chemicals in sagebrush that prevent animals from spitting the drugs back out, they would also prevent cancer cells from spitting the chemotherapy out," Dadabay hypothesizes.
In the lab, Dadabay pours super-cold liquid nitrogen on sagebrush leaves to keep them crisp while students grind them up with mortars and pestles. Students put the crushed leaves into a tube along with a solvent. Some of the crushed leaves' chemicals dissolve into the solvent. The mixture is placed in a drying machine where the solvent is evaporated, leaving the chemical. A tiny bit of solvent is added back to create a concentrated solution that is used for analysis.
Dadabay and her students have found some promising leads that could lead to slowing drugs' exit from the body.
Dadabay says her work could go well beyond looking for chemicals to keep chemotherapy in the body for longer periods. Researchers might find new antibacterial compounds to fight bacteria that are adapting to existing antibiotics. One relative of the sagebrush in Asia has yielded one of the world's foremost weapons against malaria, she said.
If Dadabay finds the right chemicals, her work could open the Idaho desert for cost-effective drug prospecting using animals.
"It will be a new way of doing drug discovery," she said.
Bill Roberts: 377-6408, Twitter: @IDS_BillRoberts