Tobacco plant holds key to fighting cancer

Posted on April 9, 2014

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Dr Hulette, right, with Dr Kvansakul:  they've revealed how molecules that form a first line of defence against disease actually do their job

Dr Hulette, right, with Dr Kvansakul: revealing how molecules that form the first line of defence against disease actually do their job.

La Trobe University research has revealed a tobacco plant’s natural defence mechanisms could be harnessed to kill cancer cells in the human body.

Scientists at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science have identified that a molecule in the flower of the plant that fights fungi and bacteria also has the ability to identify and destroy cancer.

The defence molecule, called NaD1, works by forming a pincer-like structure that grips onto lipids in the membrane of cancer cells and rips it open, causing the cell to expel its contents and explode.

Lead investigator Dr Mark Hulett said the discovery, which was published in the journal eLife in March, has potential for use in cancer treatment.

Clinical studies

Yielding a universial biological secret: the ornamental tobacco plant 'Nicotiana alata'.

Yielding a universial biological secret: the ornamental tobacco plant ‘Nicotiana alata’.

‘There is some irony in the fact that a powerful defence mechanism against cancer is found in the flower of a species of ornamental tobacco plant, but this is a welcome discovery, whatever the origin,’ Dr Hulett said.

‘The next step is to undertake pre-clinical studies to determine what role NaD1 might be able to play in treating cancer.’

The preclinical work is being conducted by the Melbourne biotechnology company Hexima. So far the preliminary trials have looked promising.

‘We are confident there is potential for this discovery to translate to therapeutic use in humans.

‘One of the biggest issues with current cancer therapies is that the effect of the treatment is indiscriminate,’ Dr Hulett said. ‘In contrast, we’ve found NaD1 can target cancerous cells and has little or no effect on those that are healthy.’

First line of defence

Dr Hulett said scientists have known for some time about the molecules that form the first line of defence against microbial invasion in all plant and animal species. Until now nobody has known how the molecules actually did their job.

‘We’ve discovered the workings of this universal defence process, which could also potentially be harnessed for the development of other therapeutic applications, including antibiotic treatment for microbial infections,’ he said.

The discovery is the result of a multidisciplinary collaboration between scientists from Dr Hulett’s laboratory in cancer biology and Dr Marc Kvansakul’s laboratory in structural biology. The research used equipment at the Melbourne-based Australian Synchrotron and was supported by Hexima Ltd, Balmoral Pty Ltd and the Australian Research Council. – Suzi Macbeth

Read the research paper here.

Also of interest:

Study reveals potent new anti-cancer protein