Taxus brevifolia- The Pacific Yew

Medical Uses

Bark from flickrAt one point in time the Pacific Yew was fairly unknown and held little to no significance in the medical field. That all changed when it was discovered that the bark of the tree held a compound that inhibits the growth of various cancerous tumors. This compound was called Taxol and became an official anti-cancer drug in 1992 under Bristol-Myers Squibb. stripping the bark


The story of Taxol starts in the 1960s when the National Cancer Institute’s search for compounds with anti-cancer properties was well underway.  The NCI had several people roaming the countryside taking samples of different plants that were sent back to labs in order to test them for these special properties. In August of 1962, along with three assisting students, Arthur Barclay took samples of the Pacific Yew in a forest outside of a small town in Oregon. The sample including twigs, leaves and fruit was sent to the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation for testing. On May 22, 1964 it was found that the extract from the stem bark of the tree was active against the KB cell line. In 1971 it was found that Taxol was the compound that was responsible for the anti-cancer properties. During the 1990’s, it was being found that Taxol was an effective inhibitor of the growth of some cancers including ovarian cancer and carcinosarcoma.
TaxolInitially, it was expected that the collection of bark from the trees would create publicity and help the economy of the areas in which the trees are found. It was thought that this would aid in the conservation of these areas as well. For awhile, there was quite a political uproar about the conservations of the old-growth forests where the Pacific Yew is found. With all of the political turmoil, Bristol-Myers Squibb decided to go elsewhere for their supply of Taxus brevifolia bark. There have also been attempts to create a synthetic Taxol but, as of today, they have all been unsuccessful.

To learn more about another really neat organism that's involved in cancer treatment, check out the Pennsylvania firefly, Lingzhi mushroom, or Black Pepper!

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