Saving the Yew Tree

Tree Offers Hopeful Cancer Treatment

The question of cutting down or preserving old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest has been a controversial issue for years. Now a specific tree in the forest — previously thought of as economically useless — is adding fuel to the already heated debate.

yew tree cancer treatment

Bark and needles from the Pacific yew tree contain the drug taxol, which has achieved remarkable results in fighting advanced cases of ovarian and breast cancer. These cancers are responsible for more than 50,000 U.S. deaths each year.

Unfortunately, the yew tree grows sparsely in the forest. And an estimated six 100-year-old trees are needed to treat one patient for a year because very small concentrations of taxol are found in the yew.

However, ESCAgenetics Corp. recently announced it has successfully produced taxol in the laboratory through tissue culture technology. In this process, cells from the roots, needles and stems of the yew tree are isolated and multiplied using a fermentation process that stimulates the cells to produce large quantities of taxol.

“After nine months of effort, we derived the technology to produce taxol — and we’re now improving on it,” said Walter Goldstein, vice president of research and development at ESCAgenetics. “The company has a history of producing many products through similar processes.”

When the San Carlos, Calif.-based firm heard about taxol, Goldstein said he attended a meeting on the subject in Washington, D.C., then started a development program with a group of top-notch scientists. A series of breakthroughs followed.

And best of all, the scientists knew that very little plant material would be needed in the process.

“Because the supply of the drug is so scarce, we wanted to demonstrate that we could accomplish this without affecting the yew,” Goldstein said. “We don’t have to go back to the forest — that’s the beauty of tissue culture technology.”

The company plans to begin commercial production of taxol within two years. At that point, the Federal Drug Administration will need to review the situation, he said. But even with a lengthy timetable and plenty of work in front of him, Goldstein is still excited.

“In terms of common good, we have a tremendous opportunity to help both cancer patients and the environment,” he said. “We hope we can be helpful on both counts.”

Earth Tip: The National Cancer Institute estimates that 750,000 pounds of bark from the Pacific yew is needed this year to produce enough taxol for its needs.

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