Mayapple Anti-Cancer Treatment

By George Grow

This is Bill White with the VOA Special English SCIENCE REPORT.

American research scientists have found a new use for a wild plant commonly found in the United States. The researchers say the mayapple plant produces a substance used for making a drug to fight cancer. They say it can produce more of the cancer-fighting substance than anything else known to scientists.

The mayapple grows in the forests of the southern and central United States. Many Americans consider the plant undesirable. However, scientists have found that the mayapple produces a substance called podophyllotoxin. Podophyllotoxin is used to produce the cancer drug etoposide. Etoposide is used to treat lung cancer and cancer of the testicles. It has been shown to restrict the activity of an enzyme necessary for the reproduction of cancer cells. This prevents the spread of the disease.

Traditionally, podophyllotoxin has been collected from the roots of podophyllum emodi. It is a wild plant that grows only in the Himalayan Mountains. However, the plant has been declared endangered because too much of it has been collected in India. Decreasing supplies of the plant in India have resulted in export restrictions. Attempts to make copies of the cancer-fighting substance have proven costly.

Now, researchers from the United States Agriculture Department and the University of Mississippi have developed a way to get podophyllotoxin from the mayapple plant.

The researchers believe that both the mayapple and podophyllum emodi produce the substance as a form of protection against insects and other plant-eating creatures. The plants store the substance until they are attacked.

The American researchers say their method is successful because it makes the mayapple think it is being attacked. This results in the release of large amounts of podophyllotoxin. They say their system to remove podophyllotoxin from the mayapple is fast, effective and low cost. The researchers say the mayapple plant provides a plentiful and renewable supply of the substance. And they add there may be increased demand for the mayapple plant as a crop if the method becomes widely used.

This VOA Special English SCIENCE REPORT was written by George Grow. This is Bill White.

Voice of America Special English