Professors researching at the University of Montana have turned to Butte's Berkeley Pit fungi as a potential building block in the cure for cancer.
In their lab, Andrea Stierle tracks data on her computer while her husband, Don Stierle, writes the couple’s findings in a lab notebook. They are surrounded by chemical hoods, scattered petri dishes and graduated cylinders.
The Stierles started working at UM in 2010, and brought their research about fungi that live in the Berkeley Pit. Bacteria there have adapted to survive in its harsh waters, and the Stierles' research focuses on fungi that could block the pathways cancer uses to travel through the body.
The couple began this project in the early 1990s. The Berkeley Pit has a pH level between 2.3 and 2.5, the same acidity as a lemon. It was once believed that nothing could live in such harsh conditions.
Swirling a dark, viscous liquid around in a cylinder, Andrea explains, “This compound could make a great source for a potential drug type of compound.”
The couple has discovered 80-100 useful compounds since 1992.
The scientists have spent their careers looking for drugs from the natural world. One of the couple’s early discoveries came from the bark of a Pacific yew tree. It’s a unique fungus named after Andrea Stierle, Taxomyces andreanae, and can be used to manufacture taxol, a drug used in chemotherapy treatment.
The Stierles' research at UM can be used as a foundation for other scientists and researchers to build upon to find a cure for cancer. The Stierles said they lay the groundwork for a larger, more financially strong company to come in and grow something out of their research.
The only student who works with the couple is Monique Carvalho de Santana. She came to UM in January through Brazil’s “Science Without Borders” program. De Santana studies technology and chemical processes in Brazil. Since she’s been in Montana, she has been extracting small water samples from large batches of the Berkeley Pit water.
Similar to how in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the penicillium fungi, a fungus which produces a compound that kills or stifles the growth of the bacteria. Andrea loosely compares their work to Fleming's. The Stierles research and work under similar conceptual ideas.
The composition of the fungi they find is used in cancer research because it can be manipulated, grown and transferred effectively to humans.
Their current research focuses on how cancer moves through the body’s metabolic pathways. They focus on stifling a process called metastasis, when cancer spreads from a localized area of the body to different regions.
When cancer has metastasized, the rate of survival drops significantly.
“We’re aiming to inhibit a particular enzyme system that’s associated with cancer,” Andrea said. “A lot of these compounds have been proven to stop particular types of cancers.”
The compounds the couple discovered won't be used for years. They have to be tested by pharmaceutical companies before they can be viable on the drug market.