Cancer has been a malicious disease having the potential to kill the person depending on its severity. While patients do survive after suffering through the hardships of chemotherapy and radiation most of them lose their energy in the process and it takes so much more to bring back their cheerfulness and quality of life. Scientists have been incessantly trying to discover drugs for cancer and even chemicals extracted from a small flowering plant have helped in this endeavor for decades together. While trusting plants for their medicinal values has been in practice since time immemorial there are few as fruitful as the rosy periwinkle in curing diseases.
The Madagascar periwinkle/rosy periwinkle is Africa’s gift to the world. This ornamental plant is also widespread in India more commonly known as ‘Nityakalyani’ or ‘Good Night’ flower. Ayurveda, India’s centuries old natural healing methodology practiced since the Vedic period uses this flower to prepare medicines against diabetes mellitus and wasp stings. Despite such advantages the rosy periwinkle is also called as the “Flower of Death” due to extreme toxicity of the flower and the plant that consuming even a little more than the suggested small amounts can prove to be fatal to life.
Alkaloids for Life
The Madagascar periwinkle boasts of containing up to 70 different alkaloids (many of them have pharmacological effects on humans) including the anti-cancer compounds vinblastine and vincristine. Unfortunately, the plant’s potential benefits were not discovered until the late 1950s when its extract was submitted for testing. Soon after, the researchers were mesmerized by the plant’s anti-cancer potential and ability to destroy white blood cells. Leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow includes formation of white blood cells in extremely high numbers. Hence, something such as the rosy periwinkle that decreases the white blood cell count is an invaluable addition to treatment of leukemia. But nothing is as simple as it sounds and everything has its share of challenges. The challenge here was that, producing 1 g of vinblastine required around 500 kilograms of dried leaves. Vinblastine has been listed as an essential medicine by the World Health Organization (WHO) that’s maximum cost-effective and safe due to its use against bladder, testicular, lung, ovary and breast cancer. Read more about any of these cancer types by visiting the website www.firsteatright.com.
With such a huge quantity of the plant required for generating vinblastine researchers and scientists have been trying to understand the process of production of vinblastine by the plant for more than half a century and finally succeeded not until recently.
From Plant Synthesis to Lab Synthesis
Researchers have finally discovered the missing genes in the pathway using latest genome sequencing technology. Vinblastine is one of the most structurally complex active natural elements present in plants and all the pain and efforts that have gone into this discovery are worth it! In this process, researchers have also identified enzymes that build vinblastine precursor chemicals (such as catharanthine and tabersonine). By using synthetic biology techniques these are chemically coupled to produce vinblastine. This would be of noteworthy help to either increase vinblastine production in the plant or by placing synthetic genes into hosts such as yeast or plants.
With thorough knowledge of the genetic pathway and its chemical structure researchers can now create quite a formidable quantity of the alkaloid using synthetic biology techniques. But this includes an overwhelming number of 31 steps in total (right from the primary chemical precursor to the final product).
Thousands of leukemia patients have benefitted from drugs derived from the Madagascar periwinkle-simply an ornamental flowering plant whose advantage was accidentally discovered turning out to be a boon to the world indeed!
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.