New Anti-Cancer Compound Derived from Ancient Plant

May 27, 2010 By Susan McGinley
Withania leaves (Photo by Leslie Gunatilaka)

(PhysOrg.com) -- University of Arizona scientists have used a new quick-growing technique to produce a water-soluble form of a plant compound that combats cancer and encourages the survival of healthy cells.

Research trials are under way on this sulfate form of withaferin A, which could develop into a new anti-cancer drug.

Scientifically studied since the 1960s, withaferin A reduces tumor mass by preventing the growth of that make a tumor malignant. The compound is derived from the roots of a winter cherry plant, the extracts of which have been used for more than 3,000 years in India as a general tonic to build , improve mental concentration, relieve stress and enhance health.

"Finding a water-soluble analog of withaferin A is significant, especially if it turns out to be a clinically useful drug," said Leslie Gunatilaka, director of the UA's Southwest Center for Natural Products Research and Commercialization, or Natural Products Center.

Withania is widely cultivated for commercial use in its native India, and also in the Middle East and in North America. It often is sold under the name ashwagandha as a in the U.S. and Europe.

Although traditionally grown outdoors in soil, the UA team decided to use an entirely nontraditional method - aeroponics - to produce bulk amounts of withaferin A needed for biological evaluation.

In aeroponics, plants are set over enclosed chambers where their suspended roots are misted with water and nutrients, instead of growing in soil.

The withania plants grew about five times larger using this method than if they had been grown in soil.

"Using the aeroponic system for cultivation, we were able to produce more than 20 grams of withaferin A in a single greenhouse. It normally costs around $195 for just 10 milligrams," Gunatilaka said. "Also, it usually takes two to three years to mature to sizeable roots to be commercially viable, but here it takes just six to nine months."

Not only did the aeroponic method yield bigger plants faster, with more withaferin A than usual, it also unexpectedly stimulated the plants to produce large amounts of the new natural product - a water-soluble sulfate form of withaferin A.

Upon testing, this new form demonstrated the same bioactivity as withaferin A. It was able to inhibit the proliferation and survival of tumor cells, disrupt tumor formation and induce the healthy cells' heat-shock response to reduce stress and increase survival, according to the researchers.

The difference is that the sulfate form of withaferin A is slower acting and water-soluble; it can be converted to withaferin A in cell culture media. The researchers, expecting that this withaferin A form will convert to its active form when metabolized in the body, are pursuing further testing in animal models. The patent will be held by the UA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Natural Products Center scientists collaborated with researchers from the Whitehead Institute at MIT on this project. In addition to Gunatilaka, the researchers included Ya-ming Xu, Marilyn T. Marron, Emily Seddon and Stephen P. McLaughlin of the Natural Products Center; Dennis Ray of the UA School of Plant Sciences; and Luke Whitesell of the Whitehead Institute.

The UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences provided funding for the project, along with the USDA.

Withaferin A is just one of hundreds of such compounds that scientists with the Natural Products Center have isolated, characterized and evaluated since the center's inception in 1996. Center researchers look for compounds in desert plants and their associated microorganisms that can improve human health and be developed as potential industrial products in Arizona.

Natural Products Center scientists have discovered several other compounds in desert organisms that can significantly inhibit the growth of tumors. Many have been patented and have progressed to extended evaluation for their pharmaceutical value.

Explore further: Protein secrets of Ebola virus

Related Stories

Researchers root out new and efficient crop plants

Jul 30, 2008

A part of the global food crisis is the inefficiency of current irrigation methods. More irrigated water evaporates than reaches the roots of crops, amounting to an enormous waste of water and energy.

Potential treatments from cryptic genes

Jun 02, 2008

Big pharma gave up on soil bacteria as a source of antibiotics too soon, according to research published in the June issue of Microbiology. Scientists have been mining microbial genomes for new natural products that may ha ...

Suspicion lingers over bisphenol A and breast cancer

Aug 25, 2006

Bisphenol A, a common industrial chemical claimed to speed the growth of human breast and ovarian cancers, retains its carcinogenic properties even after being modified by body processes, report Indiana University and University ...

Screening the herbal pharmacy

Mar 04, 2008

Curing cancer with natural products – a case for shamans and herb women? Not at all, for many chemotherapies to fight cancer applied in modern medicine are natural products or were developed on the basis of natural substances. ...

New molecular compounds found near Fiji

Oct 13, 2005

Scientists have discovered 10 new molecular structures with pharmaceutical potential in a species of red seaweed near Fiji in the South Pacific.

Recommended for you

Chemical biologists find new halogenation enzyme

15 hours ago

Molecules containing carbon-halogen bonds are produced naturally across all kingdoms of life and constitute a large family of natural products with a broad range of biological activities. The presence of halogen substituents ...

Protein secrets of Ebola virus

20 hours ago

The current Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, which has claimed more than 2000 lives, has highlighted the need for a deeper understanding of the molecular biology of the virus that could be critical in ...

Protein courtship revealed through chemist's lens

20 hours ago

Staying clear of diseases requires that the proteins in our cells cooperate with one another. But, it has been a well-guarded secret how tens of thousands of different proteins find the correct dancing partners ...

Decoding 'sweet codes' that determine protein fates

22 hours ago

We often experience difficulties in identifying the accurate shape of dynamic and fluctuating objects. This is especially the case in the nanoscale world of biomolecules. The research group lead by Professor Koichi Kato of ...

Conjecture on the lateral growth of Type I collagen fibrils

Sep 12, 2014

Whatever the origin and condition of extraction of type I collagen fibrils, in vitro as well as in vivo, the radii of their circular circular cross sections stay distributed in a range going from 50 to 100 nm for the most ...

User comments : 0