Flower Power: A Cure for Cancer?

There is a flower in my garden that spreads so rapidly it has become a pest, and it has resisted all efforts to kill it.

Now it turns out that the flower — a common bachelor button — and it's more famous relative, feverfew, may have the power to kill cancer.

That's far from certain at this point, but clinical trials are set to begin soon in England to determine whether a modified derivative from this plant is safe to administer to terminal leukemia patients. If it does no harm to the patients, clinical trials will start in this country, possibly within six months, to determine whether the flower does indeed kill cancerous cells in the blood while leaving healthy cells alone.

A successful outcome would be an astonishing breakthrough in the fight against cancer because this type of treatment approaches the disease from a new direction, but because most new drugs fail during the rigorous trials this could turn into just another false hope. However, laboratory tests on cancer cells at the University of Rochester Medical Center have been encouraging enough to at least lead to a next step — testing the drug for safety.

"We don't want to raise false hopes here," said lead researcher Craig T. Jordan of the University of Rochester. "If something bad happens at the phase one trial, we won't go beyond that."

It has taken years to get this far because the road to cancer cures is littered with failed promises, but there were hints many years ago that there was something special about feverfew. The journey from the garden to the cancer ward involved many researchers, helped by some critical breakthroughs in our understanding of cancer. It's not the same battle today that it was just a decade or so ago.

This story begins a couple of centuries ago when people depended upon herbs for medical treatment. Certain plants were known to help alleviate pain and feverfew, which looks a lot like a daisy, was used to ease headaches and inflammation. An extract from the plant, parthenolide, was eventually isolated and packaged in pills, and it is sold today in health food stores as a treatment for migraine, arthritis and other ailments.

There were hints years ago that the chemical might also be useful in the fight against leukemia, but an early trial ended in failure because it was not absorbed into the blood and thus could not attack cancerous blood cells even if it had the power to do so.

Meanwhile, cancer research had turned up a surprising development. In 1977, John Dick of the University of Toronto made a remarkable discovery. He found that some of the cancerous cells in leukemia were stem cells, those magical cells that morph into different kinds of adult cells, like blood cells. Could it be, a few scientists wondered, that aberrant stem cells actually cause cancer?

If true, to have any hope of ever eradicating cancer scientists would need to figure out how to get to the stem cells and stop the disease at its roots. Scientists around the world began searching for stem cells in all sorts of cancers, and found them nearly everywhere they looked — in breast cancer, and later in the brain and bone. Those findings have led some scientists to conclude that many, and possibly all, tumors begin at the stem cell level.

The news electrified the University of Rochester's Jordan and his then-graduate student Monica L. Guzman. About 10 years ago, Guzman began studying the molecular structure of stem cells.

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