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Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Nut source for cancer drug
hazelnuts
Cancer fighting chemical in hazelnuts
Hazelnuts could provide a source for the key chemical in the cancer drug Taxol, potentially saving the NHS huge sums of money.

US researchers have discovered that hazelnuts contain the cancer-fighting chemical paclitaxel, which is the active ingredient in Taxol.



This is potentially good news for cancer patients

Angela Hoffman, University of Portland
The drug is used to treat ovarian and breast cancer among other forms of the disease, extending the life of patients by over a year, but its availability varies between different areas of the UK.

The chemical was originally taken from the bark of the slow-growing Pacific Yew tree. Commercial supplies of Taxol are now manufactured by a semi-synthetic method that relies on extracts from the leaves of another yew species.

A US judge ruled this month that the drug manufacturer's patents were invalid, opening the way for generic drug makers to produce their own versions at cheaper prices.

Deriving paclitaxel from hazelnuts could increase competition and further bring down the drug's price.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence in the UK is currently looking at Taxol and it is reported it will endorse its use nationwide, which would make it available to patients free on the NHS.

But the Department of Health says there will be no extra money to fund its use locally.

It costs thousands of pounds a year per patient to fund the treatment and the cost of its use, and that of a similar drug called Taxotere, would cost the NHS £50m annually, it is estimated.

Discovered

Angela Hoffman, of the University of Portland, in the US, discovered the chemical's presence in hazelnuts and announced the finding at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.

She said: "This is potentially good news for cancer patients."

Her study began as an effort to determine why certain hazelnut trees resist a plant disease known as Eastern Filbert Blight.

When a chemical analysis of the trees was conducted, paclitaxel turned up in the tree's nuts, branches and shells.

Paclitaxel can be synthesised artificially, but the method is too complex and expensive to implement commercially, Hoffman said.


Taxol
Taxol is effectve against ovarian and breast cancer
Hoffman's research indicated that the amount of the chemical found in the hazelnut tree is about one-tenth that of the yew, but that the effort required to extract paclitaxel from the two sources is comparable.

She said eating hazelnuts was unlikely to have any medical benefit in itself.

A spokesman for the Imperial Cancer Research Fund said: "This unexpected finding is potentially good news for cancer patients.

"Up until now, yew trees were the only natural source of paclitaxel and producing it in the lab is expensive.

"Having more sources from which to make the drug could drive the price of it down. And, given the cash restraints on the NHS, this has to be a good thing."

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