Pacific yew looks like a shrub you might find in your front lawn, but it’s much more than just a decorative plant. The Medicine Hunter, Chris Kilham, visits the New York Botanical Garden to find out how this plant is helping to fight cancer When USDA botanist Arthur Barclay collected a sample of bark from the Pacific yew tree in Washington State in 1962, he had no way of knowing that the sample would yield one of the most important cancer-fighting drugs ever developed. One of many botanists commissioned by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to collect parts of plants for testing as possible anti-cancer agents, Barclay personally collected more than 200 species for analysis. Among those samples, only the Pacific yew Taxus berevifolia, would contain a blockbuster pharmaceutical hit. In May of 1964, scientists tested the various samples collected by USDA botanists and discovered a cytotoxic compound in the Pacific yew sample collected by Barclay. Subsequent to that discovery, researchers Monroe Wall and Mansukh Wani, both working in a NCI drug discovery program in North Carolina, screened fresh Pacific yew samples and isolated a previously unknown, highly active cancer-fighting compound. The road from the initial discovery of Taxol and its launch for the treatment of various cancers was a long one. After the first isolation of Taxol from the bark of the yew, researchers began to collect much more materila. Arbre Sacré des Druides, Chinwood, Common Yew, English Yew, Himalayan Yew, If, If à Baies, If Commun, If de l’Himalaya, If de l'Ouest, Ifreteau, Pacific Yew, Taleespatra, Talispatra, Taxus baccata, Taxus brevifolia, Tejo, Western Yew. People use the bark, branch tips, and needles to make medicine. Despite serious safety concerns, yew is used for treating diphtheria, tapeworms, swollen tonsils (tonsillitis), seizures (epilepsy), muscle and joint pain (rheumatism), urinary tract conditions, and liver conditions. Women use it for starting menstruation and causing abortions. Pharmaceutical companies make paclitaxel (Taxol), a prescription drug for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer, from the bark of the yew tree. They extract paclitaxel, leaving the poisonous chemicals in yew behind. Yew might affect various parts of the body including nerves, the heart, and muscles. All parts of the yew plant are considered poisonous. Yew can cause severe stomach problems and can cause the heart rate to slow down or speed up dangerously.
Among women at high risk for breast cancer, fewer than one in five were inclined to take the drug tamoxifen to prevent the disease, according to researchers at the UC Davis School of Medicine and Medical Center. Concerns about the drug's potential side effects were the primary reason. The study, funded by the California Breast Cancer Research Program and the National Cancer Institute, will be published in the May 15 issue of CANCER, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. Taking tamoxifen can reduce a woman's risk of developing breast cancer by as much as 49 percent. However, the drug also increases risks for endometrial cancer, deep venous thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, painful sexual intercourse and cataracts requiring surgery."The most important implication of our study is that even among women considered at high risk for breast cancer, and eligible to take a medication to reduce their risk, many are reluctant to do so," said Joy Melnikow, professor of family and community medicine at UC Davis and lead author of the study. "Women in our study were very concerned about potential harmful effects when they considered taking tamoxifen to reduce their risk for a disease they might not get."The finding has implications for the development of other chemoprevention drugs to reduce cancer risk. "Potential harmful effects become much more important in the context of reducing risk for a potential disease, in contrast to treating a disease," Melnikow said. The study, involving nearly 1,500 women from 20 countries including Britain, tested a new drug combination using docetaxel, the drug derived from yew, against the best chemotherapy combination available. Dr Jean-Marc Nabholtz, chairman of the Breast Cancer International Research group, which conducted the trial, told the meeting: "The superior results observed with the docetaxel-based regimen indicate that it can potentially cure more women than one of the best chemotherapies we have". Half the women received the treatment including docetaxel, which is called TAC, and half the older chemotherapy, known as FAC. All the women had received surgery for breast cancer which in all cases had spread to their lymph nodes. In the TAC group, the women had 32 per cent less chance of their cancer returning compared with the FAC group. Among women with the least number of lymph nodes affected, one to three, relapse was reduced by 50 per cent and the risk of death after three years was reduced by 54 per cent. Anthony Howell, professor of medical oncology at the Christie Hospital, Manchester, led the British arm of the study.
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