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Endangered Plant and Cancer Drug: Path to Creating Drug Without Relying on Plant?

Sep 11, 2015 05:31 PM EDT
Mayapple Flower
Stanford researchers used proteins from an endangered Himalayan plant, known as mayapple, and inserted them into a common lab plant to create a cancer drug.
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons )

Plants are great providers. They supply us with oxygen, food, shelter, ecosystem management, and even modern medicines. The trouble is, some of them are endangered--such as the Himalayan plant the mayapple, from which an important cancer drug is sourced. In order to create a more stable source for the drug, a Stanford University professor and her graduate student recently extracted cancer-fighting proteins from the mayapple and learned more about creating the drug in a lab, outside of the endangered plant.

"People have been grinding up plants to find new chemicals and testing their activity for a really long time," Elizabeth Sattely, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, said in a news release. "What was striking to us is that with a lot of the plant natural products currently used as drugs, we have to grow the plant, then isolate the compound, and that's what goes into humans."

To isolate the cancer-fighting proteins, the researchers identified those that work, using a molecular assembly line. They found that the proteins were able to produce the compound whether or not they were inside the plant. The hope is that the proteins can be implanted into other types of plants, or into yeast--and can be grown there. This could lead to far simpler development of drugs, and would eliminate our dependence on an endangered plant.

"A big promise of synthetic biology is to be able to engineer pathways that occur in nature, but if we don't know what the proteins are, then we can't even start on that endeavor," Sattely explained in the release.

In their research, the scientists learned that in mayapples, the pertinent proteins form when the plant senses an attack and creates a defense."It's only when the leaf is wounded that the molecule is made," Sattely said in a statement.

The team then examines the molecules that developed when the plant went into its defense mode. Of the 31 new proteins that appeared, the team used ten to make up the successful assembly line they transmitted into their lab plants.

"My interests are really identifying new molecules and pathways from plants that are important for human health," Sattely added in the release.

Their research was recently published in the journal Science

A video detailing how Sattely and her graduate student were able to isolate the proteins can be found online

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