Plant Power: FAMU’s Breakthrough Against Triple-Negative Breast Cancer

December 12, 2023

breast cancer event

Research assistant Patricia Mendonca (from right), and learners Shade’ Ahmed and Sukhmandeep Kaur watch as Karam Soliman uses a centrifuge to separate materials and purify various compounds.


Imagine a world where one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer, an illness that has resisted many traditional treatments, is finally tamed. That is the future Karam F.A. Soliman, Ph.D., envisions through his groundbreaking research at Florida A&M University (FAMU). This is excellent news for African-American women, who researchers found were 28% more likely to die from triple-negative breast cancer than white women. 

Triple-negative breast cancer is a subtype of breast cancer that does not respond well to conventional hormone therapies because it lacks three essential receptors: estrogen, progesterone, and HER2. 

In simplest terms, TNBC is hard to treat because it does not have the “hooks” (receptors) that standard medications can latch on. Soliman said you can think of triple-negative like a lock without a traditional keyhole. 

“We’re trying to create a master key that will work on it,” said Soliman. He has been committed to this research for over a decade. He serves as associate dean for research and Graduate Studies at FAMU’s College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, Institute of Public Health. 

Approximately 279,100 new cases of invasive breast cancer were expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2020. Out of these, around 15% were triple-negative. 

Soliman and his team have made a groundbreaking discovery: flavonoids, natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables, could offer a new treatment pathway. “The beauty of these compounds is that they are not toxic and can prevent chemotherapy resistance in patients with breast cancer,” Soliman states. 

Familiar sources of flavonoids include strawberries, citrus fruits, and various leafy greens. “When we eat these fruits and vegetables, they provide these flavonoids, which have great effects on the body,” he emphasizes. 

Soliman does not just speak from research; he also speaks from personal experience. “My brother had stage IV colon cancer and was told it was inoperable. We started him on these kinds of compounds, and he is now cancer-free,” he shares, suggesting the broader applicability of these findings. 

Although the incidence of this aggressive cancer is equal among races, the mortality rate is not. Soliman notes that the mortality rate for triple-negative breast cancer is especially high among African-American women, stressing the urgent need for effective treatments that work across diverse populations. 

The stakes are exceptionally high for African-American women, who face disproportionate mortality rates of TNBC. “This is why our work at FAMU is so critical,” emphasizes Soliman. 

Future steps include partnerships with pharmaceutical firms to launch clinical trials. “The research isn’t just in theory; we’ve seen it work in the lab, and it’s very promising,” says Soliman, who also penned a book about his research titled “Flavonoids and Anti-Aging: The Role of Transcription Factor Nuclear Erythroid 2-Related Factor2.” 

Given the promising research, one practical action you can take today is incorporating more flavonoid-rich foods into your daily diet. Consider adding fruits like strawberries and oranges and vegetables like kale and spinach, which are excellent sources of flavonoids. 

“We’ve been working very hard for decades, and we’ve found some wonderful compounds,” said Soliman. It is not just another discovery on paper but a beacon of hope for many navigating the grim landscape of triple-negative breast cancer. By shifting our attention to nature’s pantry, we may find the answers we have been searching for in the fight against this aggressive disease. 

As Soliman and his team continue their groundbreaking research, they hope to get these compounds into clinical trials. “It’s not theoretical; it’s obvious it works,” he says. You can take action by embracing a diet rich in flavonoid-containing fruits and vegetables.