‘EXCITING’ ANTI-CANCER COMPOUND DISCOVERED IN THE HUMBLE WILLOW
More than a century after giving the world aspirin, another potential drug has been found in willows – this time with anti-cancer properties
Rothamsted scientists, working with cancer biologists at the University of Kent have discovered a chemical in willow which has been found to kill various cancer cells, including those resistant to other drugs.
Of particular excitement is its activity against neuroblastoma, a hard to treat and common childhood cancer where the overall survival rate is below 50%.
In laboratory tests, the chemical, miyabeacin, was also found to be effective against several breast, throat and ovarian cancer cell lines.
Rothamsted’s Professor Mike Beale, a co-leader of the study said whilst the pharmaceutical activity of salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin, is well known, the pharmacological properties of miyabeacin are potentially even greater.
“With resistance to treatment being a significant issue in cancers such as neuroblastoma, new drugs with novel modes of action are required and miyabeacin perhaps offers a new opportunity in this respect.
“Structurally, it contains two salicin groups that give it a potential ‘double dose’ of anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting ability that we associate with aspirin.
“However, our results reporting the activity of miyabeacin against a number of cancer cell lines, including cell lines with acquired drug resistance, adds further evidence for the multi-faceted pharmacology of willow.”
After brain cancers, neuroblastoma is the most frequent solid tumour seen in the under-fives.
The team tested miyabeacin against a range of cancer cell lines. Initial cell viability assays were carried out on a neuroblastoma cell line established from a stage 4 neuroblastoma patient,and a drug resistant sub-line.
Professor Beale says the next steps are to scale up production of miyabeacin from farmed willow and provide more material for further medical testing.
The use of willow bark in medicine was recorded by ancient Greek, Assyrian and Egyptian civilisations, but the first scientifically reported investigation of willow as a remedy for fever was in 1763.
In 1897 the Bayer Company produced the synthetic analogue, aspirin (acetylsalicylate), one of the earliest and most successful nature-inspired drugs.
Rothamsted Research is home to the UK’s National Willow Collection, and in conjunction with the Institute’s established expertise in analytical chemistry, Dr Jane Ward , a co-leader of the study, puts the cancer breakthrough down to having 1500 willow species and hybrids available to screen with state of the art techniques.
“Possibly because of the success of aspirin, medicinal assessment of other salicinoids in willow has been mostly neglected by modern science, and the National Willow Collection has proven to be a gold-mine of exciting new chemistry, that perhaps underlies its position in ancient therapies,” she said.
About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.