Paper highlights breakthrough in understanding plant's cancer-fighting components

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Paper highlights breakthrough in understanding plant's cancer-fighting components

Published on August 11 2010


A new study examining how plants manufacture cancer-fighting compounds will assist in the future manufacturing of chemotherapy drugs.
In a new article published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brock University researcher Vincenzo De Luca and his team examine the results of a study on plant chemistry and ecology that will help pave the way for simpler extraction of cancer-fighting compounds from plants such as the Madagascar periwinkle.
The Madagascar periwinkle produces two chemical components called alkaloids that, when combined, make up a powerful chemotherapy drug that stops cancer cells from growing. De Luca’s team wanted to know why these two alkaloids were not coming together inside the plant before extraction – which, along with purification, can be a costly process – so they began to study the origins of these compounds.
What they found in this popular, pretty groundcover was that one type of alkaloid made its way to the leaf surface after production, while another made its way into the interior cells of the plant. Further research has shown that the two chemicals combined are toxic to insects, perhaps explaining why they don’t come together in the plant.
This is a remarkable discovery, De Luca calls it, since it will likely have scientists in developed and developing countries taking a renewed interest in their plants, and more importantly, in their surface chemistry and on the important role played by the external epidermal cell layer in biosynthesis of these complex natural products. “This shows us that simple methodologies can still provide valuable insights,” De Luca notes, referring to the method of dipping the leaves in chloroform to determine the placement of the alkaloids. “This study should facilitate the purification of biologically useful molecules as well as providing fundamental knowledge about the biochemical and ecological roles of epidermal cell layers in the manufacturing of such complex molecules” he added.
“A discovery such as this does not come along every day. I’ve been doing Periwinkle research since 1984 and it happens maybe four or five times within a career,” De Luca says of this research, and it is important to share these results in a prestigious, widely distributed publication such as PNAS.
The paper, headlined by PNAS as “Compartmentalization of cancer drug components in the periwinkle plant,” was co-authored by several Brock researchers and technicians under De Luca’s supervision, including Jonathan Roepke, Vonny Salim, Maggie Wu and Antje Thamm, as well as Wilhelm Boland, a director with the Max-Plank Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, together with his assistant Kerstin Ploss, and Jun Murata, from the Suntory Institute for Bioorganic Research in Osaka, Japan.
The paper appeared in the Aug. 9 Early Edition of PNAS at www.pnas.org/content/early/recent, and two days later in the print edition.

ABOUT Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
PNAS is one of the world's most-cited multidisciplinary scientific serials. Since its establishment in 1914, it continues to publish cutting-edge research reports, commentaries, reviews, perspectives, colloquium papers, and actions of the Academy. Coverage in PNAS spans the biological, physical, and social sciences. PNAS is published weekly in print, and daily online in PNAS Early Edition.