Compound with ‘exciting’ anticancer properties found in willow

The humble willow tree gave us the aspirin and now, researchers might have found another potential drug from it.

Willow tree. Credits: Maria Khatami

The reason why aspirin is also called ‘acetylsalicylic acid’ is that it is derived from willow (Salix alba).

The medicinal properties of the willow tree have been known for millennia. Medicines made from willow and other salicylate-rich plants appear in clay tablets from ancient Sumer as well as the Ebers Papyrus from ancient Egypt. Now, scientists from Rothamsted Research, working with cancer biologists at the University of Kent have discovered a new interesting chemical in willow trees: miyabeacin.

In lab tests, miyabeacin killed various cancer cells, including those resistant to other drugs, says Professor Mike Beale, a co-leader of new study.

“With resistance to treatment being a significant issue in cancers such as neuroblastoma, new drugs with novel modes of action are required and miyabeacin perhaps offers a new opportunity in this respect,” Beale says.

Neuroblastoma is the most frequent solid tumor seen in children under the age of 5, and the survival rate is usually under 50%. The team tested several cancer lines against miyabeacin and reported exciting results, as well as some similarities to aspirin.

“Structurally, it contains two salicin groups that give it a potential ‘double dose’ of anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting ability that we associate with aspirin.”

“However, our results reporting the activity of miyabeacin against a number of cancer cell lines, including cell lines with acquired drug resistance, adds further evidence for the multi-faceted pharmacology of willow.”

Of course, many things kill cancer in a Petri dish. Killing it in humans is an entirely different challenge. While this is an exciting result, it’s very preliminary, and it will likely be years before this is trialed on humans — if it even gets to that point. First, the compound must be shown to be safe in animal trials, and if everything goes well, then tests on humans can begin; and most treatments that are successful in mice are not successful in humans.

Still, it’s always good when promising compounds are found, especially as they come from a natural, easily accessible source.

In a way, willows have been a victim of their own success: because aspirin was derived from substances found in willows, other substances in willows haven’t been analyzed thoroughly until recently.

Dr. Jane Ward, a co-leader of the study, puts the cancer breakthrough down to having 1500 willow species and hybrids available to screen with state of the art techniques.

“Possibly because of the success of aspirin, medicinal assessment of other salicinoids in willow has been mostly neglected by modern science, and the National Willow Collection has proven to be a gold-mine of exciting new chemistry, that perhaps underlies its position in ancient therapies,” she said.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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About Mihai Andrei

Andrei's background is in geophysics, and he's been fascinated by it ever since he was a child. Feeling that there is a gap between scientists and the general audience, he started ZME Science -- and the results are what you see today.

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