A leafy Himalayan plant mayapple is used to produce a widely used cancer-fighting drug called etoposide. However, environmentalists have declared mayapple as an endangered plant. In a breakthrough discovery, scientists from Stanford University have found a way to produce this cancer drug from an easily grown laboratory plant.
The research team led by Elizabeth Sattely, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, and colleagues believe that this technique of shifting medicinal properties from rare plants to laboratory plants could be applied to a wide range of other plants and drugs. This would enable a more stable supply of drugs derived from rare plants.
Scientists identified the genes that enable the Himalayan plant to produce the chemicals key to producing a the cancer drug. The research team used a novel technique to identify proteins that work together in a molecular assembly line to produce the cancer drug. They then showed that the proteins could produce the compound outside the plant. In this case, they put the machinery in a different plant.
Sattely said, "A big promise of synthetic biology is to be able to engineer pathways that occur in nature, but if we do not know what the proteins are, then we cannot even start on that endeavor."
The scientists believe that they would be able to eventually produce the drug in yeast which can be grown in large vats in the laboratory to better provide a stable source of drugs.
The findings were published in Science.