A potential drug that can kill cancer cells has been discovered in willow trees, sparking hopes of new treatment for childhood cancers.
It comes more than a century after aspirin was discovered in the same plant, with scientists hailing “a goldmine of exciting new chemistry”.
Scientists led from Rothamsted Research, working with cancer biologists at the University of Kent have discovered the chemical, miyabeacin, which has been found to kill various cancer cells, including those resistant to other drugs.
They are particularly excited about the chemical’s success against neuroblastoma, a hard to treat and common childhood cancer where the overall survival rate is below 50 per cent.
Rothamsted’s Professor Mike Beale, a co-leader of the study, said: “With resistance to treatment being a significant issue in cancers such as neuroblastoma, new drugs with novel modes of action are required and miyabeacin perhaps offers a new opportunity in this respect.
“Structurally, it contains two salicin groups that give it a potential ‘double dose’ of anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting ability that we associate with aspirin.
“However, our results reporting the activity of miyabeacin against a number of cancer cell lines, including cell lines with acquired drug resistance, adds further evidence for the multi-faceted pharmacology of willow.”
Rothamsted Research is home to the UK’s National Willow Collection and, in conjunction with the Institute’s established expertise in analytical chemistry, Dr Jane Ward, a co-leader of the study, puts the cancer breakthrough down to having 1,500 willow species and hybrids available to screen with state-of-the-art techniques.
“Possibly because of the success of aspirin, medicinal assessment of other salicinoids in willow has been mostly neglected by modern science, and the National Willow Collection has proven to be a gold-mine of exciting new chemistry, that perhaps underlies its position in ancient therapies,” she said.
Reader Q&A: Can plants get cancer?
Asked by: Yasmin Caine, Cheshire
Yes. Crown galls are a kind of plant cancer, caused by the bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens (pictured). This causes uncontrolled growth of plant cells around the infection, just like a tumour. Other tumours can be triggered by fungi or physical damage.
But plant cells are anchored in place by the cell walls, so plant cancers never spread far or metastasise to other tissues.
Alexander is the Online Editor at BBC Science Focus and is the one that keeps sciencefocus.com looking shipshape and Bristol fashion. He has been toying around with news, technology and science on internet for well over a decade, and sports a very fetching beard.