If you have a garden, you probably have, in your front or back yard, the treatment for a number of different types of cancer. The Yew is a popular ornamental bush for gardens around the world. It has soft, evergreen needles, is a hardy plant and stays an attractive green year round, even in harsh northern climates. But did you know that the Yew produces a compound that has already been approved for treatment of breast, ovary and certain lung cancers? The compound is called paclitaxel, sold under the tradename TaxolTM by Bristol-Myers Squibb. Although Taxol is generally now synthesized, the initial process of extracting it from plants is an ideal example of agricultural biotechnology.
According to Natural Resources Canada, Taxol was first extracted from the bark of the Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) in the 1960's, as part of screening program for detecting natural remedies, by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). However, although the anti-tumor properties were reported by chemist Monroe Wall, the NCI apparently did not take notice until his findings were confirmed in the late 1970's. Clinical trials were performed throughout the 1980's and research is ongoing, but don't get any ideas about eating Yew branches or leaves, or even making tea out of them, since paclitaxel's ability to inhibit cell division also makes it extremely toxic!
To this day, research continues on alternative medicinal uses for Taxol, for fighting a variety of diseases, and on manufacturing Taxol analogues with less side effects, greater efficacy, or that are easier to synthesize. Some studies also focus on overcoming patient resistance to Taxol. Check out Luo et al. (2010) for a paper on using green tea extract (-)-epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) to sensitize breast carcinoma to Taxol treatments.
Luo, T. et al. 2010. (-)-Epigallocatechin gallate sensitizes breast cancer cells to paclitaxel in a murine model of breast carcinoma. Breast Cancer Research 12(1): R8 (open access online). doi:10.1186/bcr2473
The taxol story - An overview. Natural Resources Canada. http://cfs.nrcan.gc.ca/subsite/yew/taxol.