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Tree bark becomes promising cancer treatment

Words by Smiley Team

A substance from a Brazilian tree bark could potentially be used to treat a type of cancer, research has found. 

Acute myeloid leukaemia has a survival rate of around 20% after five years, and is caused by an abnormal increase in a specific blood cells.

However, scientists have identified a compound from the bark of a tree called β-lapachone, which controls the increase in the number of cells involved with cancer – and was toxic to other cells as well.

“It’s important to find new therapeutic strategies for acute myeloid leukemia,” Professor Gonçalo Bernardes, a reader in Chemical Biology and a Royal Society University Research Fellow and a Fellow of Trinity Hall College, Cambridge said.

“In our work, we used these natural compounds and modified them in a way that controls their negative effects and allows us to take advantage of their therapeutic value.”

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The compounds the team were studying are known for their potential to control the increase in the number of cells that characterise cancer, so are good candidates for the treatment of leukemia.

"The compound that we explored in this study, called β-lapachone, is a promising drug to treat leukemia, but its reactive properties could have undesirable effects," said Professor Bernardes.

So, how does it work?

“Cancer cells have certain marks that tell them apart from healthy cells,” said Dr Ana Guerreiro, co-second author of the study. “In acute myeloid leukaemia we know that one of these specific markers, called CD33, is present in the cancer cells.

“We attached our natural product to an antibody that binds specifically to this CD33.

“This allows the drug to go through the body without damaging any healthy cells and when the antibody encounters the cancer cell, it binds to the CD33 marker and delivers the drug.

“At this moment it will turn into its active and toxic form, killing the cancer cell.”

Inspired to act?

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SUPPORT: The Children's Cancer and Leukaemia Group's research is focused only on cancers affecting children and young people.

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