CORVALLIS - An Oregon State University professor thinks there might be cancer-fighting potential in a powerfully stinky Appalachian woods plant.
Known as wild leeks or "ramps," the plant tastes like pungent cabbage and smells much stronger than garlic, said Philip Whanger, a professor of agricultural chemistry.
But its putrid smell masks a promising talent: Ramps are able to absorb and hold more selenium from the soil in less time than their cousins - onions, garlic and broccoli - all believed to fight cancer.
This wild forest plant grows between April and June in the moisture-laden mountains of Appalachia and can be found at higher altitudes from northern Georgia into Canada. But before ramps can be recognized as a real cancer-fighting superhero vegetable, the plant must be grown in a laboratory setting and scientifically analyzed.
Right now, ramps grow only in the wild during their normal April-to-June cycle. But Whanger, who conducts research through OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station, and his assistants plan to transplant wild ramps into campus test plots in early April.
Grants of $20,000 from the Linus Pauling Institute and $5,000 from the Selenium-Tellurium Foundation will go toward a study of how the campus-grown ramps affect tumors in rats.
Meanwhile, scientists at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., the State University of New York at Albany and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg also will begin testing to see if ramps warrant further research.
Under the best-case scenario, the research will produce some sort of palatable ramp product that people can eat to reduce their risk of certain virulent cancers.
For example, Whanger said, freeze-dried ramps might be the solution to solving the odor problem while keeping the cancer-fighting benefits intact.
Whanger became interested in testing the possible cancer-fighting properties of ramps about two years ago. He has conducted research on selenium for 32 years. His research began because Oregon soil didn't contain enough of the trace mineral to protect grazing livestock against selenium deficiency.
Originally selenium became a research focus because it was shown to be toxic. But selenium is more complex. Research indicates that selenium is vital to both human and animal health - either a deficiency or an excess of selenium causes disease.
Research by Whanger and others suggests that the optimum amount of selenium - about 300 micrograms a day - can help fight cancers of the colon, breast, prostate and lung.
Selenium is readily available in broccoli, garlic and onions. Its cancer- preventing materials have cut the rate of mammalian tumor growth in rats by more than 60 percent.
Whanger's research has taken him around the world, including five trips to China to study selenium levels there. However, his study of ramps has taken him back to the Appalachian hill country where he was born and reared.
"They have ramp suppers there," Whanger said. "They serve 'em up with ham and brown beans."
Everyone ate the smelly plants, mostly out of self-defense. "You didn't want to be the only one who didn't eat them," he said.
But if the humble wild plant's early promise is realized, Whanger sees a day when ramps will be grown and eaten for health defense.