Australian researchers published findings this week on a newly-discovered plant compound that destroys cancer cells, but leaves healthy cells unharmed. They found it in possibly the last place you'd look for a cancer cure: the family of plants that brings us cancer's number-one culprit, tobacco.
The research team at Australia's La Trobe University discovered the cancer-blasting protein in the flowers of Nicotiana alata, a relative of cigarette tobacco that's usually planted as an ornamental (though it's sometimes smoked in hookah pipes). A protein called NaD1 helps the plant fight off fungi and bacteria—and, it turns out, that same protein is like a sniper for cancerous cells.
On the cellular level, NaD1 works by plunging sharp pincers into fat molecules present in the outer membranes of cancerous cells. This action rips the cells open, spilling their guts and destroying them before they can spread their cancerous mutations to other cells.
"There is some irony in the fact that a powerful defense mechanism against cancer is found in the flower of a species of ornamental tobacco plant, but this is a welcome discovery, whatever the origin," said Dr. Mark Hulett, lead investigator in the study.
The most promising aspect of NaD1 is how it specifically targets cancerous cells. Many of the most vicious, lifestyle-limiting side effects of current chemotherapy stems from the fact that the drugs tend to kill healthy cells as well as cancerous cells.
Now that the researchers have an idea how the mechanism works, they're labouring to see how it can be put to use. Preclinical trials are underway at a Melbourne biotech company, though Dr. Hulett predicts it will take a decade before the substance finds its way to hospitals.
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