Did you know…that plant stem cells are a rich source of a low-cost cancer drug?
There are approximately 300,000 species of plants in the world. The majority of the pain-relieving and life-saving drugs we have come to depend on are produced from this varied flora. In fact, three quarters of our drugs were originally extracted from plants, and one quarter of our medicines are still derived from plant tissue.
Take for instance, the anti-cancer compound paclitaxel (brand names include Taxel, Onxol and Nov-Onxol), which inhibits tumor growth by suppressing cell division. Paclitaxel is the most popular drug for the treatment of breast, lung, colon, ovarian, head and neck cancer, and is also an effective therapy for AIDS-related Kaposi’s Sarcoma. Culled from the bark of the yew tree, paclitaxel has proven difficult and expensive to produce because it cannot be chemically synthesized.
For example, aspirin was originally produced from willow bark, but is now chemically synthesized, which means it can be manufactured in large quantities cheaply because it is made from an inexpensive starter material and transformed into aspirin through a series of chemical reactions.
When an organic compound such as paclitaxel cannot be chemically synthesized, the manufacturing process becomes expensive and ecologically damaging. Paclitxel production depends on mature trees and yields harmful by-products. In the 1990s scientists discovered a way to produce paclitaxel using the tissue of a related shrub, but the process still was not very effective, as the amount produced proved to be unstable and insufficient.
An Inexpensive Way to Harness the Healing Power of Plant Stem Cells
A recent study published in Nature Biotechnology provides a promising solution to the arduous and expensive process of paclitxel production. Scientists have discovered that paclitaxel can be manufactured in large quantities inexpensively and sustainably using stem cells derived from trees.
The stem cells produced are self-regenerating tree cells that can be engineered to create a plentiful supply of the drug that is much cheaper than the cost of current manufacturing methods.
The study, conducted by the University of Edinburgh and the Korean company Unhwa Bioteck, promises not to be an isolated event, as scientists have also cultured plant stem cells from other medicinal plants. Stem cell technology could feasibly be used to make many other pharmaceutical products, making these drugs more commercially available and more inexpensive for all.
Lead research professor Gary Loake, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences said:
“Plants are a rich source of medicine—around one in four drugs in use today is derived from plants. Our findings could deliver a low-cost, clean and safe way to harness the healing power of plants, potentially helping to treat cancer, and other conditions.”
Fortunately, plant stem cells use is not a controversial issue like human stem cell production is. Further research into the field of stem cell use promises to uncover many more applications and cures. Stay tuned!