Taxol (chemical structure below), considered an essential medicine for treatment of cancers, was first discovered in the bark of the Pacific Yew tree in 1971, but this photo is not of the bark of a Yew tree.


In 1955 the US government was looking for anti-cancer drugs and they were testing cytotoxicity (cell killing power) of samples that people submitted. In 1962 a botanist submitted a sample of extract from the bark of a Pacific Yew tree and it killed the cancer cells. They figured out the chemical structure of the cancer-stopping compound (above) in 1971 but clinical trials to treat cancer in humans did not start until 1984.

In 1991, the year I began a doctoral program in molecular biology, the New York Times published an article titled, “Tree Yields Cancer Treatment” but also mentioned that,

“It takes six 100-year-old Pacific yews to treat one patient, and the trees are scattered in the underbrush of ancient forests in the Pacific Northwest. Most of the trees are far too small to be used, clear-cutting is required to harvest those that are suitable…”

Six, 100-year-old (or older) Yew trees that can only be harvested by clear-cutting in ancient forests are required in order to give one patient this drug which gives that person about a 30% chance of remission. The number of Pacific Yew trees was far fewer than the number of cancer patients who might benefit from its medicinal bark. Thankfully in 1994, KC Nicolaou and EJ Sorensen at the University of California, San Diego and Scripps Research Institute (where I was conducting my doctoral research) developed a protocol for the complete synthesis of taxol. Their work allowed the drug to be produced at the scale needed to treat hundreds of thousands of cancer patients while protecting our ancient forests. Although I was at UCSD and Scripps at the time, I was not involved in the synthesis of taxol, we were working on T cell development!

The beauty in this story is in the biodiversity and mind-blowing complexities of life in our ancient forests, beauty is found in the pioneering spirit of those who searched for cancer therapies in nature, there is beauty in the dogged determination of the Sorensen team (along with at least a dozen other major research groups). They solved the insane puzzle of synthesis for taxol, a very complex molecule. They provided a widely used cancer treatment that has saved thousands of lives while, at the same time, protecting ancient forests. But still, the featured photo (top of this post) is not the Yew.  The photo below is of a Pacific Yew, check out this old healing centurion with a haggard skin that saves human lives.

Photo Credit: Inga Spence

The bark shown in the featured photo, the one with colorful ribbons, is from a family of trees (there are over 400 species) and some can actually conduct photosynthesis in their bark cells!  This tree family is fire resilient. Most species in this family are native to Australian, fire-prone environments. Its oil is suffused with an invigorating aroma that would surely be familiar to you and it too, like the Yew, is reputed to have medicinal properties.  Got a guess at who this bark belongs to?  Or a guess as to why it presents such colorful ribbons?

Remember to notice something beautiful today.

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