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Thursday, January 15, 1998 Published at 23:18 GMT


Bluebells could help fight cancer
image: [ Bluebells - the woodland flower that could help in the battle against disease ]
Bluebells - the woodland flower that could help in the battle against disease

The common bluebell is packed with chemicals that might one day be used to treat HIV infection and cancer.

The woodland flower contains about 15 biologically active compounds that defend it against animals and insect pests say scientists.

And certain bluebell extracts - water-soluble alkaloids - are thought to have properties that may combat HIV infection and cancer.

Scientists are already testing two similar compounds extracted from species of legume found in Australia and America.

One of the drugs boosts the body's natural defences while the other disrupts growth of the protein coat surrounding the HIV virus.

Dr Alison Watson, senior natural products chemist at the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, Aberystwyth, said: "The bluebell produces compounds very, very similar to them. They are not identical, but similar enough to get us excited.

Dr Watson thinks it is possible that fields would be covered in blue carpets of bluebells grown for commercial value.

"You have to farm the plants because some of these compounds are very difficult to produce synthetically," said Dr Watson. "They would certainly be very pretty."

Scientists at the Institute have found wider applications for bluebell compounds in agriculture.

The flower also contains a potentially highly valuable agri-chemical known as DMDP "in bucket loads", said Dr Watson.

The compound is toxic to worm-like soil nematodes and can be used to protect other plants from the common pest.

Bluebells are just one example of ordinary home-grown plants under investigation at the institute.

"We started looking at British species and to our great amazement found there was as much biodiversity in things like the common bluebell as you get in the rain forest," said Dr Watson.

Some of the chemicals found in bluebells are strikingly similar to substances only found in exotic tropical plants.

"With the bluebell, we found that animals won't eat it, even when nothing else is available. This is because it contains toxic chemicals, but in the right doses these might have very useful applications in agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry," said Dr Watson.

One of Britain's leading HIV and Aids experts, Professor Clive Loveday, said he was not at all surprised by the bluebell's hidden treasures.

Professor Loveday, who heads a specialist retrovirology department at London's Royal Free Hospital, said: "Almost every drug that we investigated up to the 1960s was derived directly from plants.

"Just like humans, plants have an immune system and the chemicals they use to defend themselves have these medical applications."

Professor Loveday said that although bluebell bulbs were known to be poisonous if eaten, herbal folklore says that "the juice can cure snakebite".

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