Hope at the Root of the Walnut Tree—Investigating Potential Cancer-Fighting Medicines

By Armaan Singh

Imagine if the cure to devastating diseases like cancer, the second leading cause of death in the United States, was right under our noses. Leaves, bark, and the roots of many trees and plants contain life-saving medicines that have yet to be discovered. From 1960-1981, more than 30,00 plant samples were screened by the National Cancer Institute. Botanists were hired to collect plants from across the United States because scientists suspected that the natural world contained cancer-fighting compounds. For example, Taxol-derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew tree was discovered by Monroe E. Wall and Mansukh C. Wani at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, in 1971 and since then has been used as a chemotherapy drug. From that momentous discovery, several others have been made from plants and trees. In nature, plants produce anti-fungal chemicals that are toxic to fungi and serve as a mechanism to defend themselves from attacks by micro-organisms. Human cells are similar to fungal cells. Interestingly, chemical compounds that are intended for plant defense also have an inhibitory effect on human cells—and this includes cancer cells. Currently, human trials for the treatment of prostate cancer are being conducted to investigate the efficacy of Plumbagin that is derived from the walnut tree. Diseases that have taken scientists and researchers decades to cure could potentially have a promising treatment from the roots of a walnut tree. Plumbagin is a naphthoquinone derivative of the Plumbago zeylanica which is an herbaceous plant with smooth stems and broad rounded leaves. These plants often grow in sub-tropical areas in the understory of monsoon forests. Plumbagin is also found in genera dosera which is one of the largest species of carnivorous plants that grows in wet habitats. It is also a component of black walnut drupes. Black walnut trees grow widely in the United States. Plumbagin often takes the appearance of a yellow dye and is a crystalline solid. Its molecular formula is made up of 11 carbon atoms 8 hydrogen and 3 oxygen. The roots of Plumbago zeylanica have been used for over 2,500 years in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine. Plumbagin has been found to have antimicrobial effects and display specific activity against bacteria and yeast. The most surprising properties found in plumbagin, however, are its cancer-fighting potential. In contemporary studies, plumbagin has found to carry anticancer and antiproliferation (rapid cell division) potential when tested in small animals and cell culture. The next step in developing a cancer-fighting drug is to move from the laboratory and investigate the response in actual humans.

Plumbagin is currently being investigated as a potential treatment for prostate cancer in human trials. Prostate cancer is a cancer of the prostate, a small walnut-shaped gland in men. It is the most common type of cancer in men and is common in old age. Symptoms of prostate cancer are trouble urinating, decreased force in streams of urine, and blood in semen along with a feeling of discomfort in the pelvic area bone pain along with a multitude of other symptoms. The cause of prostate cancer is when some cells in one’s prostate becomes abnormal, leading to mutations and rapid division in which tumors metastasize or spread to other tissue. In this case, apoptosis or cell death occurs. Treatments for prostate cancer include surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy in extreme cases. Unfortunately, many of these treatments are ineffective and prostate cancer still claims millions of lives. Prostate cancer begins as an androgen dependent disease and is treated with androgen deprivation therapy, an antihormone treatment of prostate cancer that deprives the prostate of hormones such as testosterone—which prostate cancer cells need to grow. However, prostate cancer can further progress and become androgen independent, which leads to metastatic prostate cancer and patient death. There is currently no treatment for the end stage of androgen independent prostate cancer, but this is where plumbagin comes in. Plumbagin is a candidate drug that appears to possess properties that are effective in end-stage prostate cancer patients that no longer respond to androgen deprivation therapy. This is a very promising and quite potentially game changing discovery. As plumbagin continues to be used in human clinical trials, terminal or end stage prostate cancer patients could be treated and potentially have more years to live. Plumbagin has also been found to inhibit a variety of other cancers including breast and lung cancer when fed to the diets of rats and mice. With this information, who knows what we can accomplish with plumbagin—and it shows the greatest cures can be found under our noses—like the roots of a walnut tree. What did you learn? Questions: 1. Why are plants investigated for their ability to fight human disease? Answer: In nature, plants produce anti-fungal chemicals that are toxic to fungi and are a mechanism to defend themselves from attacks by micro-organisms. In this manner, human cells are similar to fungal cells. Chemical compounds that are intended for plant defense also have an inhibitory effect on human cells—and this includes cancer cells. 2. What is plumbagin and how does it fight cancer? Answer: Plumbagin is a naphthoquinone derivative of the Plumbago zeylanica which is an herbaceous plant with smooth stems and broad rounded leaves. These plants often grow in sub-tropical areas in the understory of monsoon forests. Plumbagin is also found in genera dosera which is one of the largest species of carnivorous plants that grows in wet habitats. It is also a component of black walnut drupes. Black walnut trees grow widely in the United States. Plumbagin often takes the appearance of a yellow dye and is a crystalline solid. Its molecular formula is made up of 11 carbon atoms 8 hydrogen and 3 oxygen. Plumbagin has been found to have antimicrobial effects and display specific activity against bacteria and yeast. The most surprising properties found in Plumbagin however, are its cancer fighting potential. Citations https://www.cancer.gov/research/progress/discovery/taxol https://grantome.com/grant/NIH/R01-CA138761-03 https://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/68/21/9024.article-info https://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/68/21/9024 https://academic.oup.com/carcin/article/33/12/2586/2464257 Image Credit: Photo by Samuel Silitonga from Pexels Wikimedia Commons @ Mgiganteus, http://www.chemspider.com/Chemical-Structure.9790.html, license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/


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