Grant to search for more efficient way to make cancer-fighting drugs

A Washington State University researcher is part of a $4 million effort to develop a better way to produce taxol, an anti-cancer chemotherapy drug that was discovered in the bark of Pacific Yew trees.

A gloved hand holds tweezers up against the bark of a tree.
Taxol is a cancer drug originally derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree. Photo courtesy National Cancer Institute.

Taxol is used to treat a variety of cancers, from breast to ovarian to bladder to prostate and more.

It used to be harvested directly from trees by stripping their bark. But harvests weren’t done sustainably and many of the trees died. Currently, the drug is made by extracting taxol from Yew tree cell cultures grown in a laboratory.

This process is time consuming and expensive.

To address this challenge, an international group of scientists, including WSU’s Mark Lange, received the $4 million grant from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, to work on developing a better way to produce taxol.

They plan to put a variety of genes that aid in making taxol in plants, like tobacco, and microbes, like baker’s yeast, so that these engineered plants and microbes produce taxol like yew trees.

“You take a larger number of genes and in lots of combinations to give you the information of how a pathway operates,” Lange said.

Profile photo of Mark Lange
Mark Lange

Once scientists find out how the pathway operates, they hope to identify the most efficient way taxol is made and focus on that.

All this work requires a large team, including a Stanford University engineer, biologists from the University of California system and the John Innes Centre in the UK, and Lange and his team. The WSU part of the grant involves further developing a database to quickly identify potential intermediates of taxol biosynthesis using searches against existing spectral records for tens of thousands of natural products, to see if something they find is new or not.

There are nearly 1,000 known taxanes, a family of chemical compounds of which taxol is one.

“There’s a lot of diversity amongst the enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of taxanes, so going through all the knowledge we have can take time,” Lange said. “Luckily our database cuts down on that search time.”

The work will likely take many years, but if the team is successful, they could have a huge impact on lives around the world.

“We’re looking for ways to make it easier and cheaper to fight cancer,” Lange said. “And we’ve got a very knowledgeable team to take on this task.”

Lange previously received a grant from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) that provided early discoveries that led to this larger study.