June 2, 2012

Genes Responsible For Cancer-Fighting Substance In Opium Poppies Discovered

Scientists studying opium poppies say that they have pinpointed the genes responsible for producing a compound which can be used as a cough suppressant and cancer-fighting agent.

According to Reuters reporter Ben Hirschler, researchers at the University of York and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) located a cluster of 10 genes which they claim are responsible for the creation of noscapine within the poppies.

Noscapine has been used for many years to fight coughs, and recent studies have shown that it is also a "potent anti-cancer agent" that can "kill tumor cells," he added.

They were able to discover those 10 genes by cross-breeding noscapine-producing poppy plants with non-producing poppies, Time.com Health Writer Maia Szalavitz explained in a June 1 article.

Their findings, which were published Thursday in the journal Science, could make it easier to produce the substance synthetically.

"The fact that the genes are grouped in a cluster means that plant breeding becomes faster and easier," Tim Bowser, a co-author of the study and a member of GSK's Australian opiates division, said in a statement, according to Szalavitz. "[We] are using this discovery to develop high-yielding commercial noscapine poppies in order to establish a reliable route of supply."

The gene cluster, which is said to be the most complex yet discovered in a plant, are all inherited together, Ian Graham, director of the York University Center for Novel Agricultural Products, told Reuters. The substance, which was first discovered in the early 19th century, has become the center of attention after scientists showed that it could function as an anti-tumor agent back in 1998, Hirschler noted.

"Because noscapine is an approved drug in some countries and has a good safety record, some physicians are already using it off-label to treat cancer," Szalavitz wrote. "Data suggests noscapine shows promise against some treatment-resistant ovarian cancers and for multiple myeloma, lung cancer, colon cancer and breast and prostate tumors. But while early clinical trials are ongoing, none have been published so far."

"Although the doses of noscapine used to treat cancer are far higher than those used as cough medicine, side effects are reportedly fewer than with traditional chemotherapy," she added.