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Scientists discover how Chinese medicinal plant makes anti-cancer compound

April 08, 2016

New research led by Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre has revealed how a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine produces compounds which may help to treat cancer and liver diseases.

The Chinese skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis - otherwise known in Chinese medicine as Huang-Qin - is traditionally used as a treatment for fever, liver and lung complaints.

Previous research on cells cultured in the lab has shown that certain compounds called flavones, found in the roots of this plant, not only have beneficial anti-viral and anti-oxidant effects, but they can also kill human cancers while leaving healthy cells untouched. In live animal models, these flavones have also halted tumour growth, offering hope that they may one day lead to effective cancer treatments, or even cures.

As a group of compounds, the flavones are relatively well understood. But the beneficial flavones found in Huang-Qin roots, such as wogonin and baicalin, are different: a missing - OH (hydroxyl) group in their chemical structure left scientists scratching their heads as to how they were made in the plant.

Professor Cathie Martin, lead author of the paper published in Science Advances, explains: "Many flavones are synthesised using a compound called naringenin as a building block. But naringenin has this -OH group attached to it, and there is no known enzyme that will remove it to produce the flavones we find in Huang-Qin roots."

Working in collaboration with Chinese scientists, Cathie and her team explored the possibility that Huang-Qin's root-specific flavones (RSFs) were made via a different biochemical pathway. Step-by-step, the scientists unravelled the mechanism involving new enzymes that make RSFs using a different building block called chrysin.

"We believe that this biosynthetic pathway has evolved relatively recently in Scutellaria roots, diverging from the classical pathway that produces flavones in leaves and flowers, specifically to produce chrysin and its derived flavones," said Professor Martin.

"Understanding the pathway should help us to produce these special flavones in large quantities, which will enable further research into their potential medicinal uses. It is wonderful to have collaborated with Chinese scientists on these traditional medicinal plants. Interest in traditional remedies has increased dramatically in China since Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2015 for her work on artemisinin. It's exciting to consider that the plants which have been used as traditional Chinese remedies for thousands of years may lead to effective modern medicines."
-end-
This publication is the first high-profile output from the Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Sciences, established between the John Innes Centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in 2014. The research was funded by the BBSRC, CEPAMS and supported by the Chinese Scholarship Council (CSC).

Notes to editors

1. An advance copy of the paper can be found at:http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/sciadvances/

2. Images to accompany the paper can be found at: http://bit.ly/229g3J4

3. About the John Innes Centre

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature's diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and well-being, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.

The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2014-2015 the John Innes Centre received a total of £36.9 million from the BBSRC.

4. About CEPAMS

The CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science (CEPAMS), which is based in China, brings together three world-leading laboratories from the UK and China to tackle the global challenges of food security and sustainable health care. CEPAMS nurtures excellent science and focuses on the improvement of food crops and the production of high-value, beneficial products from plants and microbes. The centre is a collaboration between the John Innes Centre and two institutes of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology and the Institute of Plant Physiology and Ecology).

CEPAMS was established with funding from the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

5. About the BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

6. To find out more about the Chinese Scholarship Council go to: http://en.csc.edu.cn/About/c309df7fb3fa40b3a179a7ad93f11988.shtml

John Innes Centre

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