Vinca Rosea

Another plant that changed the course of anticancer research was rosy periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus). This common garden plant, also known as Vinca rosea, is native to Madagascar. It has long been prescribed in folk medicine for treating dysentery, menstrual disorders, and diabetes. The discovery of its cancer-fighting properties was serendipitous, and it happened when the plant was being investigated for treatment of diabetes. Dr. Robert L.Noble at the University of Western Ontario received an unforeseen envelope containing leaves from Madagascar periwinkle with information that the herbal tea from the leaves was being used in Jamaica to treat diabetes.183 The leaves did not produce considerable effect on blood glucose levels, but surprisingly it reduced the white blood cell count. This result led to the speculation that periwinkle might hold a cure for cancers like leukemia. In 1957, Dr. Gordon Svoboda of Eli Lilly Corp., who was working in collaboration with Dr. Nobel, tested crude extract of the whole plant on mice infected with P-1534 leukemia. Interestingly, 60 to 80% of the mice experienced prolonged life. In 1958, after several years of hard work, Dr. Nobel and Dr. Charles T.Beer successfully isolated a complex alkaloid constituent, vinblastine, that was responsible for inhibition of white blood cell count. Eli Lilly undertook the clinical trials, ultimately developing and marketing vinblastine as VelbanĀ©. Later, a scarce chemical cousin of vinblastine, namely vincristine, was isolated and developed as OncovinĀ©. These two compounds act by binding to tubulin protein, thus preventing the cell from undergoing necessary changes for cell division. Presently, these two compounds are routinely used to treat Hodgkin's disease and childhood leukemia. This is another example where new cancer drugs were discovered because of scientific investigation of a lead from a traditional folk remedy.

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