Some of the most important drugs or drug ingredients are derived from plants, but lately a number of medicinal plants have been jeopardized to the point they became endangered. Scientists are currently looking for new ways to produce the crucial substances that is found in these plants and ensure quick access to them.
As in September 2015, scientists managed to shift a Tibetan plant’s anti-cancer properties to a laboratory plant. The drugs can now be harvested in abundance from the new organism, making it much easier for chemists to experiment with it, which would speed up the process of creating what may be the safest and most effective anti-cancer medication.
The endangered Hymalayan plant – the mayapple, contains high amounts of podophyllotoxin, and manufacturers of the drug rely on that vital ingredient to create their anti-cancer medication. Important ingredients of the drugs that are used to treat ovarian, lung, and breast cancers, such as paclitaxel (more commonly known under the name of Taxol), are extracted from the bark and leaves of yew trees (Taxus baccata).
Lately, many manufacturers begun to combine plants with pharmaceuticals in order to devise new drugs. The problem is that the majority of plants that are used in treating cancer are endangered.
Elizabeth Sattely, professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University, California, said that the chemical found in mayapple – podophyllotoxin, is the natural equivalent of etoposide, a synthetic cytotoxic chemical that is used in chemotherapy in the treatment of ovarian, lung, and breast cancers.
The professor said that researchers have been grinding up way too many plants in the last decade to find their desired chemicals. Podophyllotoxin is produced when the mayapple is threatened. For example, when its leaves are wounded the plant triggers a group of proteins that will produce a chemical that defends it against potential predators. Professor Sattely managed to do the impossible and isolate the plant’s defense mechanism and transfer it into a genetically modified laboratory plant that will produce the same amount of the chemical essential to create the anti-cancer drug.
The researchers at Stanford genetically engineered a relative of tabacco, Nicotiana benthamiana, which is one of the most common laboratory plants. “We used these genes to engineer a wild relative of tobacco to make the medication precursor and think we could also use these genes to make the medication in other easy-to-develop organisms such as yeast,” said the professor.
Sattely also declared that the process is very simple: when its leaf is wounded then the protein is created. When she damaged the plant for the first time, the leaves released 31 new proteins.
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