Field of Science

Anti-cancer compound found in rare rain forest tree

This news came from Australia where a compound found in the fruits of a rare rain forest tree have some promise as an anti-cancer agent. TPP took particular notice of this news item because as soon as rare, rain forest tree, and Australia were mentioned together he immediately thought of the Atherton Tableland in far northern Queensland. A lot of quite unusual plants, and animals, live there and many years ago so did the Phactors, in fact the F1 attended kindergarden in Atherton and became a right proper little Aussie for awhile. The plant in the news article was Hylandia and TPP has seen it once and then only because a field savvy colleague pointed it out. This is also of particular interest because the tree is named after Bernie Hyland, a taxonomic legend of this area and he ran the herbarium for the CSIRO's tropical forest research center in Atherton. Before people go crazy and start the "natural/herbal cure" stuff, let's be clear. This tree is a member of the Euphorb family and they are mostly toxic. Finding a compound that reduces cancer tumors in mice is a great start, but understand what this means. Researchers are looking for a toxic substance that kills cancer cells at a dosage that is still tolerable (safe?) for the organism with the cancer, and the wider the window the better. Researchers will now monkey around with the molecule to see if some derivative molecule is better than the "natural" chemical because natural is not always better. Here's an example. The bark of the white willow (Salix alba) made great poultices for say a sore elbow, but the salicyclic acid in the bark would really upset your stomach if you tried to take it orally. But then someone found out that if you acetalized it, the acetosalicyclic acid was much easier on your stomach and a great general pain-killer was born (Got it yet? aspirin!). Of course this is a great argument for rain forest conservation, and a great deal of the Atherton Tableland has been converted to agriculture already because the basaltic soils, where they occur, are fertile. Good thing this rate plant wasn't exterminated in the process of raising peanuts or potatoes. 

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