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Taxol

Taxol is a chemical that was originally extracted from the inner bark of the endangered Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia), which is only found in old growth forests. Thus, despite its promise as an anti-cancer treatment, there was initially significant controversy surrounding its use since the death of four to six Pacific yews was required to produce adequate taxol for a single human dose.

View a second and third image of Taxol

Early questions regarding the prudence of destroying forests of environmentally protected yew trees in order to obtain taxol were soon made moot due to the discovery that a close chemical relative of the drug is present in the leaves of the more common European yew tree. Removing the leaves of this tree does not result in its death, as does the removal of the inner bark. Even greater advances in simply achieving adequate supplies of taxol have been made since this discovery. Most notably, a research team from Florida State University led by Dr. Robert Holton developed an economically feasible synthetic pathway for creating the drug. Also, taxol has recently been found in hazelnut trees and their nuts, as well as a type of fungus that grows on some yew tree species. The latter finding is particularly intriguing to those in the medical field because of the potential to grow taxol in fermentation tanks in a manner similar to that of penicillin production.

Taxol, which is initially harvested in the form of a white powder, appears as a colorless liquid when it is prepared for medical use. This liquid is provided to patients intravenously, usually once every three weeks. The drug, which is most commonly utilized for treatment of ovarian, breast, lung, and testis cancers, interferes with the process of mitosis within the body, stemming the uncontrolled cell proliferation associated with tumor growth. Taxol does often produce, however, a number of undesirable side effects, many of which are similar to those generated by chemotherapy. Patients that are administered taxol, for instance, may experience hair loss, nausea, numbness, muscle pain, and digestive problems, as well as a decrease in red and white blood cell counts.


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