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Can Withaferin A be a viable cancer treatment option? Mason biology student’s research published in Frontiers in Pharmacology Journal

MS in Biology student Maushma Atteeq
Maushma Atteeq, M.S. Biology - Translational & Clinical Research. Photo provided.

Some in traditional medicine use Ashwagandha, an herbal supplement derived from the root of the Withania somnifera plant, for its various health benefits. While an undergraduate at George Mason University, Maushma Atteeq selected to try Ashwagandha when it was marketed as an adaptogen (an organic supplement to help relieve stress, combat anxiety, and aid in well-being). The Mason biology student noticed a drop in her mother’s blood sugar levels upon consuming a smoothie containing Ashwagandha; coupled with her awareness that the supplement may also have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, Atteeq wanted to see if these elements were connected.

Her curiosity led to a deep dive into the medicinal potential of Withaferin A—a steroidal lactone derived from Ashwagandha. The journal Frontiers in Pharmacology recently published her literature review titled “Evaluating anticancer properties of Withaferin A—a potent phytochemical.”

Initially looking at Withaferin A’s anti-cancer properties, Atteeq discussed her interests with School of Systems Biology Professor Dr. Ancha Baranova for help exploring potential research opportunities. Considering Baranova’s mentorship and guidance, Atteeq chose to conduct the review of existing Withaferin A research.

Atteeq shared that collaborating with Dr. Baranova proved to be a great learning experience. “Given that my paper is worthy of being published—it is good enough for that, I feel really good.” She added, “I think Dr. Baranova had more faith in me than I did in myself sometimes,” she said.

Atteeq evaluated the previous research to identify anti-cancerous properties of Withaferin A and highlighted key takeaways that could influence current medical practices. Some preliminary studies show that Ashwagandha may have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, but more research is needed to determine its efficacy and safety in treating cancer. Withania somnifera has shown potential to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, inducing apoptosis along with its antioxidant properties and has garnered a lot of attention.

However, Atteeq also found gaps in the research, including analyses of dosage, toxicity, and ability of the body to absorb the compound. Some studies show a lower level of bioavailability—the amount of substance that enters circulation—meaning more thought must go into establishing other ways to administer the substance. Further analysis will need to take place to understand interactions Withaferin A may have with other therapeutics, and scientists must study the substance in diverse populations that include immunocompromised, pregnant, or geriatric. 

Atteeq, whose also has a bachelor’s degree in accounting, returned to earn her bachelor’s in biology while also working on her master’s as part of Mason Science’s Bachelor’s Accelerated Master’s program (BAM). Planning to eventually move on to medical school, she focused her master’s studies in translational and clinical research. Atteeq said she hopes to continue her path towards becoming a physician so she can practice medicine while also performing research to help others.