Norwich plant scientists crack 60-year cancer-fighting quest with new breakthrough

Professor Sarah O'Connor. Picture: Norwich Science Festival

Professor Sarah O'Connor. Picture: Norwich Science Festival - Credit: Norwich Science Festival

Plant scientists at Norwich's John Innes Centre have taken the crucial last steps in a 60-year quest to reveal cancer-fighting compounds in a bedding plant.

The team in the laboratory of Professor Sarah O'Connor has, after 15 years of research, located the last missing genes in the genome of the Madagascar perwinkle that are devoted to building the chemical vinblastine.

This valuable natural product has been used as an anti-cancer drug since it was discovered in the 1950s by a Canadian research team and is found in the leaves of the plant.

Until now, how the plant produces the chemical were not fully understood, and so it took around 500kg of dried leaves to produce just one gram of vinblastine.

But with this research, from lead author Dr Lorenzo Caputi, it is hoped scientists will be able to increase the amount of the chemical produced in the plant, or create it synthetically.

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Prof O'Connor said: 'Vinblastine is one of the of the most structurally complex medicinally active natural products in plants - which is why so many people in the last 60 years have been trying to get where we have got to in this study. I cannot believe we are finally here.

'With this information we can now try to increase the amount of vinblastine produced either in the plant, or by placing synthetic genes into hosts such as yeast or plants.'

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Its attractive white or pink flowers have made the Madagascar periwinkle a popular ornamental plant in homes across the world.

But for decades it has been the focus of increasingly competitive research probing its natural chemistry and potential pharmacological activity.

Prof O'Connor said this new study builds on the work of numerous other research groups around the world who contributed to the elucidation of the vinblastine pathway over the years.

Having assembled the genetic pathway and the formidable chemical structures, the team are now in a position to use the information to create more compounds much more quickly using synthetic biology techniques.

Prof O'Connor anticipates that her group or another in this competitive field will be able to produce microgram quantities of vinblastine or its precursors vindoline or catharanthine in the next 12 to 18 months.

The John Innes Centre team was joined in the research by the Courdavault group based at Tours, France.

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