Grad Students Get Cracking on Walnut Research

Students Get Cracking on Walnut Research

Students Get Cracking on Walnut Research

Students Ahn Pham and John Kim help research how walnuts might affect breast cancer activity (Dillon Adams photo).

By Amanda Holst, Public Affairs Assistant

Most people think of walnuts as seasonal snacks. But for a small team of determined SJSU researchers, they hold so much more potential, perhaps even a cure to cancer.

Thanks to a modest, two-year grant from the California Walnut Board, Assistant Professor Brandon White’s cancer biology lab has the opportunity to explore the effect walnut chemicals might have on breast cancer.

“The goal is to take walnuts and try to purify the different components that have cytotoxic activity,” White said. “We’re interested in understanding specifically how they work in cancer, how they kill cancer cells.”

The California Walnut Board provided the team $80,000 over two years and 25 pounds of shelled walnuts for the research, conducted in part by two students.

“I think the most important lesson I am learning is just how to be patient and persevere through the project to achieve new data or understanding of the material,” said researcher John Kim.

Such work is beneficial for students planning to pursue graduate work, including doctoral programs, medical school or dental school, according to White.

“It’s about making connections and seeing how things work in a real-world setting,” he said. “These are experiences that sometimes you don’t get in the classroom.”

Potent Compounds

For this project, White and Professor of Organic Chemistry Roy Okuda have developed what they describe as a “true collaboration between chemistry and biology.”

While White focuses on biological activity, Okuda is working on the chemistry isolation and identification.

“My particular area of specialty is called natural products chemistry, where we investigate novel chemicals from living organisms as potentially new pharmaceuticals,” Okuda said.

According to Okuda, the first step is to purify a compound and then identify it.

“We are still in the process of purifying compounds, but there does appear to be something in there which is quite potent,” he said.

The Nature of Disease

Getting the research published and then continuing the work is Okuda’s ultimate goal.

“This chemical may not end up being used in drugs,” he said. “But our research could  be very helpful in terms of understanding the nature of the disease.”

Student researcher Anh Pham shares the same long-term outlook.

“My goal is to try to produce as much as useful information as possible,” he said, “so that somebody else can come along and make something good out of it.”