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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 00:30 GMT 01:30 UK
Garden weeds 'could combat cancer'
By Oona Mashta

Dandelion (Photo Freefoto)
There are high hopes for the humble dandelion
People are often quick to dismiss the humble dandelion that thrives in the UK climate as a menace to many lawns.

But to scientists at the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, west London, the common flower is fascinating - it could even be the source of a life-saving drug.

From early tests they believe it could hold the key to warding off cancer, which kills tens of thousands of people every year.

Their work on the cancer-beating properties of the dandelion, which also has a history of being used to treat warts, is part of a much larger project to examine the natural medicinal properties of scores of British plants and flowers.

As part of their research, the Kew team are collating information about plants that were used as medicines before the advent of the NHS in 1945, but which are no longer used as conventional treatments.

The NHS not only revolutionised health care, it signalled a major shift in thinking on the benefits of using natural medicines which fell out of favour, with preference given to pharmaceutical drugs.

Therapy history

For the Ethnomedica project, or Remembered Remedies, a group of 20 scientists at Kew are examining British plants where there is a history of documented evidence that they were used to treat ailments.

We are looking at plants which can protect people against developing cancer in the first place
Professor Monique Simmonds
They are focusing in particular on plants that were used in the early decades of the 20th century.

Professor Monique Simmonds, head of the Sustainable Uses of Plants Group at Kew, said: "We aren't randomly screening plants for their potential medicinal properties, we are looking at plants which we know have a long history of being used to treat certain medical problems.

"We will be examining them to find out what active compounds they contain which can treat the illness.

"We are looking at plants used for their medicinal properties pre-NHS, which was when Western medicine really took over.

"At Kew we have extensive literature on the traditional uses of plants and hope to use this information to guide our selection of plants."

Assay tests

The scientists are studying plants' contents to find out what natural compounds they contain that can be used to actively treat a range of medicinal conditions.

Professor Simmonds said: "When we identify a plant that might be used for say treating wounds, we test extracts from that plant in a range of assays that help us identify whether it has activity.

"We then use these assays to assist us isolate the active compound or compounds.

"It is often more than one compound that is involved - that is why plant extracts often have better beneficial properties than isolated single compounds."

The scientists are studying British plants that thrive in our climate and our soil.

They hope they will find extracts that will both treat and prevent disease.

Seasonal effect

But often whether or not a plant has healing properties is not straightforward.

"Sometimes a plant only contains medicinal properties at certain times of year, " Professor Simmonds said.

mrsa - (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus)
The researchers will look at plants which could help fight MRSA
"For example, sometimes only young seeds contain the active ingredient and older ones might be useless.

"We have to look at it very carefully, to make sure we aren't missing anything.

"We know for example, galium used in the treatment of wounds should be used in the spring, when they contain higher levels of the active compounds than in late summer."

The scientists are studying plants which can treat problems of the central nervous system, such as Alzheimer's, as well as diabetes and cancer.

They will also be looking at plants believed to have anti-microbial properties which may be able to help fight MRSA (methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus), specifically in hospitals.

Wound healing

One plant that has already triggered the interest of the Kew team is Figwort, which shows promise as a wound-healing remedy.

It is believed it could be particularly useful for patients with leg ulcers caused by diabetes, which are often very difficult to heal.

Figwort contains compounds believed to be able to stimulate the cells, called fibroblasts, in the blood associated with wound healing.

Extracts from figworts also contain anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties which keep wounds clean increasing their chances of healing.

The team is also examining other plants which may have anti-cancer properties. In particular they are examining the wild relatives of some of our food plants that contain compounds with cancer-protective properties.

Professor Simmonds said: "We aren't looking for a miracle anti-cancer drug. We are looking at plants which can protect people against developing cancer in the first place.

"Plants play a big role in cancer treatment as 61% of present day anti-cancer drugs are derived from plants."

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