Applications and Discovery of Plant Chemistry. (Image credit: Sattely Lab) Applications and Discovery of Plant Chemistry. (Image credit: Sattely Lab)

Stanford scientists produce cancer drug from rare plant in lab to benefit human health


Stanford scientists produced a common cancer drug – previously only available from an endangered plant – in a common laboratory plant. This work could lead to a more stable supply of the drug and allow scientists to manipulate that drug to make it even safer and more effective.

Many of the drugs we take today to treat pain, fight cancer or thwart disease were originally identified in plants, some of which are endangered or hard to grow. In many cases, those plants are still the primary source of the drug. Now Elizabeth Sattely, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, and her graduate student Warren Lau have isolated the machinery for making a widely used cancer-fighting drug from an endangered plant. They then put that machinery into a common, easily grown laboratory plant, which was able to produce the chemical. The technique could potentially be applied to other plants and drugs, creating a less expensive and more stable source for those drugs. In a new paper published in Science, Sattely and her team used a novel technique to identify proteins that work together in a molecular assembly line to produce the cancer drug. Her group then showed that the proteins could produce the compound outside the plant – in this case, they had put the machinery in a different plant, but they hope to eventually produce the drug in yeast. Either the plant or yeast would provide a controlled laboratory environment for producing the drug.

"A big promise of synthetic biology is to be able to engineer pathways that occur in nature, but if we don’t know what the proteins are, then we can’t even start on that endeavor," said Sattely, who is also a member of the interdisciplinary institutes Stanford Bio-X and Stanford ChEM-H. at Stanford University.

The eventual goal is not simply moving molecular machinery from plant to plant. Now that she’s proven the molecular machinery works outside the plant, Sattely wants to put the proteins in yeast, which can be grown in large vats in the lab to better provide a stable source of drugs.

Visible Legacy Comment

This story is an example of the careful scientific steps being taken toward the emerging technique of synthetic biology, an interdisciplinary branch of biology and engineering. The research in the Sattely Lab shows the feasibility of powerful techniques to create drugs and potentially to design and assemble other molecules and biological components". In examining what can be done with proteins safely in sustainable plants and yeast shows promise of translation to methods capable of more volume. The outcomes should be of interest to Tech Scouts seeking innovations and scientists.

See the latest research from the ecosystem by exploring the map below!

Additional Info

  • Navigator:

    Explore the map in Navigator

  • Widget:
  • Caption: Plants have an extraordinary capacity to harvest atmospheric CO2 and sunlight for the production of energy-rich biopolymers, clinically used drugs, and other biologically active small molecules. The metabolic pathways that produce these compounds are key to developing sustainable biofuel feedstocks, protecting crops from pathogens, and discovering new natural-product based therapeutics for human disease. These applications motivate the Sattely Lab are to find new ways to elucidate and engineer plant metabolism. We use a multidisciplinary approach combining chemistry, enzymology, genetics, and metabolomics to tackle problems that include new methods for delignification of lignocellulosic biomass and the engineering of plant antibiotic biosynthesis.
back to top