Fitriya “Pipit” Nur Annisa Dewi, a researcher at the Bogor Agricultural Institute’s Primate Research Center, examined the cultured cells through a microscope lens. Extracted from the breast cells of monkeys, she exposed them to flavonoid extracts from soybeans, just as she had done to obtain her Ph.D. at Wake Forest University in North Carolina throughout the past year.
The compound has the ability to enhance estrogen production and therefore the potential to treat breast cancer.
But Pipit wants to take the science a step further. “I plan to use sauropus androgynus or katuk leaves, a shrub long used by women in Indonesia to stimulate lactation, to see if it can be used to treat breast cancer. Like soybeans, katuk is attributed with a high concentration of flavonoids, instrumental in producing estrogen” she says.
“I have yet to find out if they will have the same, or even an enhanced effect, in stimulating estrogen, which can potentially prevent breast cancer. If it does work, I’ll have to see if I have to keep giving the cells katuk flavonoids when they’re exposed to cancer, or whether it can tackle the cancer after a one off treatment.”
Pipit’s research proposal raised eyebrows in the private sector, including cosmetics giant L’Oreal. The 32-year-old was recently awarded the 2014 L’Oreal-Unesco National Fellowship for Women in Science under the life science category for her research proposal: “The Potential Cancer Preventive Effect of Kaempferol from Katuk Leaves (Sauropus Androgynus) on the Mammary Gland Epithelial Cells.”
Along with fellow recipient Nanik Purwanti, also of the Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB), Pipit will receive an Rp 80 million ($6,560) grant for her research. Like many achievements, her feat started off with a simple dream.
Starting off in the veterinary world
“I first wanted to be a veterinarian since I was in high school, as I’ve always loved animals. My mother was a vet, and I often saw her work firsthand. I also got wind about how vast the field was from her.”
Pipit says regarding her mother, veterinarian Wiwiek Bagja, the head of the Association of Indonesian Veterinarians. “I then enrolled in IPB in 2000, because it has one of the most comprehensive veterinary programs in Indonesia. It wasn’t until 2003, when I did an internship at IPB’s Primate Center, that I knew which veterinary studies I wanted to take.”
The 32-year-old adds that she was drawn to the biomedical side of the center’s primate studies, instead of its conservation or biological aspects. “Monkeys and primates have a similar cell structure and DNA to those of humans. Therefore, flavonoids like those found in soybeans or katuk leaves will have the same effect on them as they do on us,” Pipit explains about her work in the center, where she worked as one of its staff members after graduating from IPB in 2007.
“Like us, they also have cancer, though whether it’s genetic, dietary or natural reasons remain unknown to us.”
Pipit adds that the IPB’s Primate Center referred her to Wake Forest University, as the Primate Centers of both universities have worked together for the past 25 years.
Initially attending Wake Forest for a master’s degree, her stellar work there soon got her approved for the university’s Ph.D. program.
“While studying biomedics at the center was a good start, applying the methods that I learned at foreign universities like Miyazaki University in Japan, where I did some research in 2004, as well as my Ph.D. in Wake Forest five years later took it a step further. Their research techniques, know-how, and approach to problem solving are more cutting edge than those of Indonesian universities, making their application here necessary and indispensable, as we can learn from them,” she says.
“The methodology makes foreign universities more assertive in announcing their findings than their Indonesian counterparts. But I hope that the granting of the L’Oreal-Unesco Fellowship will highlight the fact that there are Indonesian researchers making significant findings, and inspire young Indonesian women to do more academic research and achieve in the field.”
Pipit adds that the foreign universities have Indonesia in their research sights, due to the country’s rich biodiversity.
“The foreign universities’ edge in research, funding and equipment, among other aspects, enabled them to outstrip their Indonesian counterparts when it comes to their findings here,” she says. “However, we also have our advantages. Among them a better knowledge of the culture and language. We also have access to age old folk wisdom about herbs, plants as well as shrubs, as demonstrated by our practice of drinking jamu concoctions for their medical properties.”
“Our consumption of jamu as well as traditional vegetables, which pioneer healthy living in Indonesia, perhaps explains why breast cancer rates here and in the rest of Asia are lower than those in the West. However, they are increasing here and in other Asian countries, a trend that might be caused by processed foods, environmental pollution or increased urbanization levels. But regardless of the causes, this development makes the research on flavonoids’ effects on breast cancer more imperative.”
Raising awareness about veterinarians
Aside from raising the profile of academic research in Indonesia, Pipit hopes that the L’Oreal-Unesco Fellowship will also increase public awareness about veterinarians in Indonesia.
“Veterinary science has long been an obscure, neglected field in Indonesia, leaving the public oblivious about its scope and variety. The field is already quite wide, as it entails pets, cattle and other livestock, as well as zoo and lab animals; all of them have their own emphasis and expertise” she says.
“This ignorance of the veterinary field is detrimental to medical research, as the use of animals in laboratory research is essential.
“Veterinarians are needed to handle the animals and treat them humanely, as they are more qualified to do this than doctors and other medical practitioners. We also pay attention to the animals’ wellbeing; for instance we take a sample of their breast cells for study, thereby leaving them alone, healthy, safe and sound.”
Aside from katuk leaves, Pipit plans to research the potential of other shrubs to treat breast cancer.
“In the near future, I plan to study the effect of torbangun leaves [plecranthus amboinicus], in treating breast cancer. The plant has similar lactating functions to katuk leaves, so I have to see if they are as rich in flavonoids as well,” she says.
“I also hope to increase scientific cooperation in research involving experts in other fields, such as biology, medical science, veterinarians and the like, as good research is equal to good teamwork. I’m just as keen to do so [with the IPB] as well as with other universities in Indonesia and their international counterparts, with which I’m game as long as its done for the common good and in line with ethical considerations.”
How far Pipit will go in the future remains to be seen. What is certain is that she and other researchers are leading Indonesian medical science in the right direction.