How potatoes and tomatoes could lead to new drugs

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Researchers are examining glycoalkaloids, a compound found in nightshade plants, as a potential treatment for cancer. Capelle.r/Getty Images
  • Many cancers are treatable, particularly if caught early, but there are few treatment options for certain forms of cancer.
  • The quest for new cancer treatments means that researchers look for new compounds to test that might have anti-cancer properties.
  • In a recent research review, scientists examined the potential for cancer treatment in glycoalkaloidsa compound found in nightshade plants.

Cancer death rates have decreased in recent decades, but cancer cases have risen overall.

As part of the diagnostic process, sequencing cancer genomes has helped scientists uncover the pathology of cancer and identify potential ways to treat it.

Still, myriad cancer-causing mutations and mechanisms outweigh the number of known treatments, as a 2020 article in Naturediscussed.

To capitalize on the information we have about how different types of cancers function, more targeted treatments to improve outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer are needed.

Some of these new treatments are derived from plant compounds. One such group of compounds, known as glycoalkaloids, is found in the nightshade family and is currently the focus of considerable research.

The mechanism by which glycoalkaloids could be used to target cancer cells is the subject of a new study, which was reviewed by a group of scientists in Poland and published in Frontiers in Pharmacology,

Lead study author Magdalena Winkiel, a Ph.D. candidate at Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, said in a press release:

“Scientists around the world are still searching for drugs [that] will be lethal to cancer cells but at the same time safe for healthy cells. It is not easy despite the advances in medicine and powerful development of modern treatment techniques. That is why it might be worth going back to medicinal plants that were used years ago with success in the treatment of various ailments. I believe that it is worth re-examining their properties and perhaps rediscovering their potential.”

Researchers often look for new cancer drugs by studying compounds created by plants and fungi.

In nature, these compounds help to ward off predators since they possess a certain degree of toxicity. Many antibiotics were first discovered in fungi, for example.

Taxol (generic name: paclitaxel) is probably the most well-known plant-derived cancer treatment. Paclitaxel was derived from a compound discovered in the bark of the Pacific Yew Tree during the 1960s,

First approved to treat ovarian and breast cancer by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1990s, paclitaxel is now used to treat numerous cancer types.

Today, the drug is included on the World Health Organization’s Essential Medicinesa list of the most critical medications needed to support a basic health care system.

Sherif El-Khamisy, Ph.D., director and associate dean of the School of Pharmacy and Medical Sciences at the University of Bradford, United Kingdom, told Medical News Today that the biggest challenges in developing cancer drugs from plant-derived compounds are reducing toxicity and targeting the tumor more specifically.

“We put a chemical on the compounds to make it non-toxic,” Dr. El-Khamis explained.

“And then that compound is cleaved off as it is removed by a protein secreted by the cancer cells — and then they become activated once they reach the tumor sites.”

Still, Dr. El-Khamisy noted there’s a lot of hope for anti-cancer treatments derived from plant compounds.

“One of the benefits is it’s already been proven to be very useful and they are really made,” he said. “We don’t need to synthesize them—you just need to modify the chemistry to make them either more specific or less toxic.”

Glycoalkaloids have a strong inhibitory effect on cancer cell growth, which is thought to be driven by mechanisms that cause the cell to die through apoptosis.

For the present study, researchers reviewed studies that looked at the anticancer properties of plants like tomatoes and potatoes, which are found in the nightshade family. They studied the following glycoalkaloids and their extracts:

  • solanine
  • chaconine
  • Solasonine
  • solar margin
  • tomatine

The review highlights the range of in silico, in vitro, and in vivo studies done on the compounds.

The analysis demonstrates that glycoalkaloid compounds target numerous cellular pathways, which could be used to target specific mechanisms in cancer cells.

According to the researchers, glycoalkaloid compounds could be used in conjunction with other cancer treatments, to broaden the scope of their effectiveness.

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the world and research on effective treatments is ongoing.

Despite the promising findings of glycoalkaloid compounds, the exact mechanisms by which they target and treat cancer cells are not fully understood.

The researchers thus called for more studies that could “explore new, more selective, and less toxic cancer therapies, or improve the effectiveness of applied treatment methods.”

dr. Charles Evans, Ph.D., research information manager at Cancer Research UK told MT,

“It’s important to stress that many of these compounds won’t be suitable as drugs, either because they aren’t effective enough or because they’re not safe enough to give to people. It’s vital that we explore every possible avenue to discover new treatments, which is why it’s crucial that researchers investigate these chemicals to see if they have the potential to become new drugs.”

dr. Evans added he is hopeful that plant-derived compounds could one day prove useful for developing new cancer treatments.

“Plants produce a huge and diverse range of interesting and understudied chemicals,” he said.

“Some of these chemicals have anti-cancer effects when tested in the lab and some, such as Taxol, have even become drugs that we use in cancer treatment today.”

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