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Stanford researchers produce cancer drug from Himalayan mayapple plant

Scientists from Stanford University have identified a technique to produce a common cancer drug from a common laboratory plant. This technique is set to be applied to other plants and drugs, for creating a less expensive and effective source for these drugs.mayapple-cancer-drug-himalaya

Most of the drugs taken for treating pain, diseases and for fighting cancer were originally identified in plants, which may have become extinct or endangered.


Elizabeth Sattely, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford and her team were successful in extracting genes that help the leafy Himalayan plant to produce a cancer fighting drug called etoposide. These genes were engineered into a common laboratory plant. Scientists used a tobacco relative as it was easy to engineer, and they said inserting the gene was more effective than to grow the plant with the chemical.

“My interests are really identifying new molecules and pathways from plants that are important for human health,” said Sattely.

The study has been published in the journal Science on Sep. 10. Sattely and her team used a technique t o identify proteins in a molecular assembly line to produce the cancer drug. The researchers were able to show that the proteins could produce the compound outside the plant. However, they hope to create the drug in yeast, but both the plant and the yeast can provide a laboratory environment to produce etoposide.

The cancer-fighting drug is produced by a leafy Himalayan plant called mayapple. The plant uses its proteins in a step-by-step process to create a chemical defense against predators. This chemical defense was altered in the lab, and become the cancer drug etoposide. Sattely said the work is a good example of how chemistry can be applied to problems of human health, which is the goal of Stanford ChEM-H. She hopes that this technique she developed to extract the drug in mayapple could be applied to a wide range of plants and drugs.

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