Searching globe for healing plants: MUSC scientist on mission to help prevent cancer

MUSC cancer researcher Dr. Michael Wargovich works with leaves and stems from Bridelia ferruginea in his lab Friday in the Hollings Cancer Center.

Brad Nettles

Dr. Michael Wargovich works in a lab seven stories up in the Hollings Cancer Center, where he studies leaves and bark gathered from muddy corners of this wide world.

If you take nothing else from what he's learned, just do this: Drink a glass of tea.

Drink it hot or iced, green or black, sweetened or not. Just drink it. Every day.

Wargovich is perfectly qualified to offer this advice. He works as an ethnobotanist at the Medical University of South Carolina, meaning he studies the relationship between humans and plants.

Still reading? Good, because "ethnobotanist" is an unfairly boring title, given what Wargovich actually does.

An Indiana Jones of flora, he travels the world in search of healing plants. Then, with help from a few select medical and graduate students, he researches how those plants can help prevent cancer here in the United States.

Color maps tell the story of cancer in today's world. The more modern, industrialized, plugged-in the society, the more likely its people will develop the disease.

A look at cancer maps

The future projections, though, show cancer hot spots migrating from North America, western Europe and Australia to countries south of the equator, to Asia and to Saharan Africa.

Wargovich attributes that shift to a corresponding shift in culture. As those people abandon their traditional foods and beverages, they start consuming ours, replacing indigenous spices and green tea with fast food and soda.

They stop taking in the beneficial properties of those native plants and, as a result, they develop tumors.

Looking at those cancer maps, Wargovich says, "People always ask in this lab, 'What is it in our diet that causes cancer?' The question really is, 'What is it that we have given up?' "

Chronic inflammation, something people with problems such as arthritis or emphysema know all too well, provides the perfect environment for tumors to grow. Given the high levels of diabetes, heart disease, obesity and stroke in South Carolina, Wargovich likes to call this place "the inflammation state" and quips that it might reveal his political leanings.

It also reveals this state's great risk for cancer.

Wargovich describes tumors as race cars, traveling through the body without regard for speed limits or even boundaries. He studies how to apply brakes on those race cars through natural products such as tea, bright-red fruits and the spice turmeric.

His quest has led him to places such as Mali, Niger and Senegal. He and his wife, MUSC assistant epidemiology professor Joan Cunningham, traveled to Guinea, West Africa, several times between 2003 and 2007, first as a social visit to a doctor friend they met at the University of South Carolina and then with research in mind.

On one trip, Wargovich met the Guinea Minister of Public Health and learned about the leader's passion for his culture's traditional healers. The minister showed Wargovich a book on all the medicinal plants in West Africa, complete with drawings.

Wargovich, realizing he held something sacred to his own work, asked if he could photocopy the entire document. Then, he asked to meet one of these healers.

Wargovich found the Guinea medicine man in a makeshift office -- a shipping container with anatomical drawings hanging on the walls. The healer agreed to collect samples of the plants contained within the book's pages but said Wargovich couldn't go with him.

Medicine, even when practiced from inside old shipping containers on the other side of the world, is still business. Healers process the plants and then dole them out in a specific number of tea bags, just as Western doctors distribute prescription drugs. The small plastic packages include typed instructions with the healer's phone number and email address, despite how unreliable Internet service in Guinea might be.

In his lab at MUSC's Hollings Cancer Center, Wargovich studies the plants he brought back and references pages of the book he copied from the minister, now dog-eared and covered with sticky notes. He and his team of students explore greens at their most basic level.

"I'll always eat a leaf," says Vondina Moseley, a fifth-year graduate student from Baltimore who studies the cancer-preventive properties of green tea. At Wargovich's request, she fetches a piece of bark from a freezer in the hallway, preserved at 80 degrees below Celsius.

A logger from Australia mailed the African mahogany bark to Wargovich after reading about him online. The logger called the scientist and told him he has 20,000 acres of the tree and no use for its bark, which provides the same pain relief as prescription drugs but without harmful side effects.

Now, the logger and the scientist will try to figure out how to collaborate.

That's the big challenge for Wargovich: putting his work to practical use. He and Sue Reed from MUSC's College of Dental Medicine developed a mouthwash from neem, a leafy tree native to India and Africa, that could help prevent painful inflammation that commonly plagues head- and neck-cancer patients undergoing treatment. For a year, Wargovich and Reed have been waiting for the federal funding to get their clinical trial under way.

Several months ago, Wargovich met a local chef, Iverson Brownell, with whom he wants to create cancer-preventive meals at Hollings Cancer Center. They hope to blend familiar and exotic foods in ready-to-go meals for patients and people who want to eat with a purpose.

"I don't think it's going to cure tumors," Wargovich concedes. "Technically, you're cured through chemo or surgery, but then it's preventing reoccurrence."

Brownell, who previously ran locally based Iverson Catering, sees the project as a simple way to make a hospital stay more tolerable.

"The food that's being offered -- I'm not knocking it -- but it could be so much healthier and so much more preventive," Brownell says. "I'd love for people to do it before they get sick."

Wargovich wants to see the meals start small at Hollings, then reach hospitals around the Lowcountry and beyond. But as with his neem project with Reed and any plans for future plant-gathering trips, this project takes funding, and funding takes time.

Preventive measures

These days, Wargovich admits, he spends most of his time working on grants instead of plants.

As for his own habits, he and his wife -- a breast-cancer survivor -- frequent Asian markets and Indian grocery stores.

"Come and look in our pantry, and people would say, 'You sure are weird,'" Wargovich says.

They grow spices in their James Island backyard and eat a lot of salads made with local produce, fish bought straight from the docks at Shem Creek and chocolate with at least 80 percent cacao, an antioxidant. And every day, of course, they drink tea.

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or