Scientists Reveals How a Chinese Medical Plant Makes Anti-Cancer Compounds

April 11, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Scutellaria basicalensis or Chinese Skullcap
Photo credit: Doronenko/Wikipedia (CC BY 3.0)

The compounds could be used to treat cancer and liver diseases!

New research from the John Innes Centre (JIC) has revealed how a plant, which was traditionally used in Chinese medicine, produces chemical compounds that may be used to treat cancer and different kinds of liver disease. Scutellaria baicalensis, a plant known as Chinese Skullcap or Huang-Qin, was investigated by a research team from JIC led by Professor Cathie Martin, working in collaboration with a group of Chinese scientists.

Their latest finding builds upon previous studies that indicated the roots of the Scutellaria plant contained certain compounds called flavones, which have beneficial antiviral and antioxidant effects. Surprisingly, these “flavones” also have the potential to kill cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unaffected, hence the reason why scientists wanted to learn how they are produced by the plant.

Root of Scutellaria basicalensis or Chinese Skullcap

Scutellaria root. Photo credit: JIC

Most flavones are relatively well understood, but the two beneficial flavones found in the roots of Scutellaria, wogonin and baicalin, have structural differences that distinguish them from other flavones. Specifically, they are missing an OH (hydroxyl) group from their chemical structure. Therefore, scientists were left baffled as to how they are made in the plant because they can’t be created through the same pathway that synthesizes other flavones.

In a news release, Professor Martin explained, "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."

In the study, Martin and her colleagues explored the possibility that the flavones in the roots of Scutellairia, wogonin and baicalin, were made using a different biochemical pathway in the plant. Step-by-step the scientists discovered the exact mechanism of production, which involves new enzymes and a different building block known as chrysin.

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"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… 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."

With scientists now understanding the mechanism that produces these beneficial flavones, we are optimistic that their medical properties will now be duly explored further.

The findings were published in the journal Nature Advances.

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