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Cancer: Orange-Colored Pigment Found In Lichens Could Fight Leukemia, New Study Shows

Oct 20, 2015 05:43 PM EDT
Orange Lichen
Parietin is a dominant pigment in Caloplaca lichens. Researchers recently discovered this pigment also has anti-cancer activity.
(Photo : Flickr: Tim Green)

A pigment found in certain lichens--the slow-growing plants on rocks, soil and tree bark--and rhubarb--may hold the potential to fight cancer, a new study revealed. Researchers from the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University recently discovered that the pigment, which is orange and called parietin, could slow the growth of and even kill human leukemia cells.

So how does it work?

For their study -- a first of its kind -- researchers extracted the pigment, also known as physcion, from lichens to investigate the affect they have on cancer cells obtained from a patient with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. In doing so, they found that the physcion could kill half the cultured leukemia cells within 48 hours. Also, the doses of parietin did not have any toxic effects on healthy blood cells, according to a news release

Researchers originally discovered the properties of parietin when they were looking for inhibitors for the metabolic enzyme 6PGD, which allows for rapid cell growth. They were interested in isolating this enzyme because previous studies indicate that 6PGD activity has increased in several types of cancer cells. Essentially, when the parietin pigments come in contact with 6PGD it counteracts the rapid growth effects and suppresses the cancerous tumors, therefore making it a contender for future anti-cancer treatments. 

"This is part of the Warburg effect, the distortion of cancer cells' metabolism," Dr. Jing Chen, a professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute, said in a statement. "We found that 6PGD is an important metabolic branch point in several types of cancer cells."

To further understand the properties of parietin, researchers tested the cells in mice. They found that a more potent derivative of the pigment -- known as S3 -- could reduce the growth of lung, head and neck tumors, according to the release. However, further research is required to better understand this application on human cells and possible side effects.

Their findings were recently published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

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