Scientists from Stanford University have found a way to produce a common cancer drug -- previously only available from an endangered Himalayan plant -- from an easily grown laboratory plant.
The scientists believe that the technique of shifting medicinal properties from rare plants to laboratory plants could be applied to a wide range of other plants and drugs, thereby leading to a more stable supply of drugs derived from rare plants.
Elizabeth Sattely, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, and colleagues identified the genes that enable the leafy Himalayan plant mayapple to produce the chemicals key to producing a widely used cancer-fighting drug called etoposide.
The team used a novel technique to identify proteins that work together in a molecular assembly line to produce the cancer drug.
They then showed that the proteins could produce the compound outside the plant - in this case, they had put the machinery in a different plant.
"A big promise of synthetic biology is to be able to engineer pathways that occur in nature, but if we do not know what the proteins are, then we cannot even start on that endeavour," Sattely said.
The researchers believe that they would be able to eventually produce the drug in yeast which can be grown in large vats in the lab to better provide a stable source of drugs.
The findings were detailed in the journal Science.