Discovery Could Save Whales, Lead to Better Drugs

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So scientists try to produce synthetic substitutes for useful compounds found in nature, and that process will continue on a large scale. That's essential, but it isn't always possible.

One interesting case involves taxol, a natural compound discovered in 1967 in yew trees, conifers found across much of North America. A short time later it was discovered that taxol might be useful in the fight against cancer, but it soon became clear that it would take a lot of trees.

In 1988, just as taxol was entering the second phase of clinical trials, the National Cancer Institute came up with an astounding figure. About 360,000 yew trees would be destroyed annually just to get the drug through the trials.

"There's not enough yew trees to supply all the taxol that is needed," said Bohlmann, whose research was published in the current issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Fortunately, researchers found the precursor that produces taxol in yew trees that grow as hedges, greatly reducing the demand on the plants. It also opened a new frontier.

Chemists were able to modify the precursor to produce synthetic substitutes that yielded "the best of both worlds," Bohlmann said. "You get the best of the natural product, and you get the refinement that comes from chemical synthesis in the laboratory."

Thus the yews were saved from destruction, and industry was able to produce sufficient quantities of a drug that has saved thousands of lives. Yet within the last five years or so, according to Bohlmann, scientists have turned increasingly to microorganisms – like yeast, which is now used as one way to produce taxol – as production platforms for natural products.

His works suggests that simply isolating a single gene – as he has done with the balsam fir tree – and placing that in a vat of yeast, may become a major player in the effort to extract the best from nature in a benign way and produce highly useful compounds.

That would be very nice for yew trees.

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