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Thought useless, Canada yew can fight cancer.

Canada yew was once regarded as a useless weed. Highly toxic and previously useful only as a colourful Christmas tree ornament, moose and deer would only eat the low-growing evergreen shrub as a food of last resort.

Today, it's considered a key ingredient in developing cancer-fighting drugs and someday there may be plantations of the stuff growing as a cash crop across Northern Ontario.

An experimental plantation project of Canada yew in the Sault Ste. Marie and Algoma district is drawing serious attention from pharmaceutical companies who are showing a keen interest in forest-derived drugs.

Also known as ground hemlock, the plant contains paclitaxel, a compound used to make Taxol (TM), the best selling chemotherapy drug in the world.

Approved for use in fighting breast and ovarian cancer and certain types of lung cancer, it generates nearly $1 billion US in annual sales. The North may prove to be an appealing place to grow it commercially because the wild plant appears to thrive here.

Of all the kinds of yew growing around the world, Northern Ontario-grown yew has the highest concentrations of paclitaxel, plus other more diverse ingredients including 10-DAB and DHB.

"It's a logical choice for plantation research and perhaps establishing plantations down the road," says project lead Tom Noland, an Ontario Forest Research Institute (OFRI) scientist in Sault Ste. Marie.

Canada yew grows naturally throughout Northern Ontario and its range stretches from Newfoundland to the Manitoba border. The plant flourishes in humid and moist conditions, especially next to lakes and rivers or beneath hardwoods such as maple and yellow birch.

It is harvested in the wild, mostly by Aboriginal groups, but because of the growing demand from pharmaceutical companies and the large amount of biomass required, producers of Taxol (TM) want more sustainable, controlled methods.

That's what spurred Noland and the Canadian Forest Service (CFS) in New Brunswick to jump on board to study alternative methods such as plantations to provide the paclitaxel.

Their early research work has generated inquiries from bio-pharmaceutical companies already involved in taxane work along with requests from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration, asking how much source material comes from wild yew and from cultivated sources.

Noland says the yew project may open the doors to a treasure trove of bio-forest drugs. "Many of the pharmaceutical chemicals we use originally came from plants."

One CFS research analyst in the Sault, Mamdouh Abou-Zaid, has chemically catalogued other native Northern Ontario plants looking to identify those with potential medicinal value.

One Canadian company already has a stake in the project.

Bio-pharmaceutical maker Bioxel Pharma, a leading Quebec manufacturer of Taxol, has a $15,000 interest in the Algoma yew plantation. They are part of a project partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Canadian Forest Service, the Upper Lake Environmental Research Network (ULERN), Thessalon First Nations and Whelan Resources.

Senior levels of government have flowed $250,000 into the project over the past three and half years in an effort to establish the plantations and analyze the best practices to grow the plant.

Noland's team began propagating their first crop last fall in the OFRI Arboretum in the Sault. Two more plantations of between 5,000 and 6,000 plants each will be established by summer's end at a Thessalon farm and at a former MNR tree nursery operated by the Thessalon First Nation.

When the 15,000- to 18,000-plant crop grows to maturity in three years, the entire yew plant will be harvested, roots and all, ground up and shipped off to an extraction plant to withdraw the chemicals.

Noland says the use of Canada yew in fighting cancer is a relatively recent discovery. First collected in the late 1960s by United States researchers on a bio-prospecting project in a Washington State national park, it took nearly 20 years to isolate the active ingredient and produce chemicals from clinical trials.

It was not released for anti-cancer chemotherapy until 1992, its first year of sale.

For Noland, determining how to make the crop pay for agriculture is as big part of his research.

He says growing Canada yew should be no more expensive than most other crops in a regular plantation, the main expense being getting the plants propagated to eventually produce a plant in the $2 to $3 range.

Establishing commercial plantations will cost a good chunk of money, since a grower would not want to propagate wild yew material, which is highly variable in chemical content, but would want lead or selected material with high concentrations of paclitaxel.

"That's what we're doing with this project, researching the best methods of growth and select the lead material so that when plantations come on-line, we have material we can propagate to establish these plantations."

So far, Noland has had inquiries from individual greenhouse growers and farmers asking about propagating plants and establishing plantations. He cautions Canada Yew will likely never be a huge commodity crop, but it has good potential in Ontario as a specialty crop. Probably only a few hundred acres of yew will be established in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick, and plant should make "reasonable money" for growers.


Northern Ontario Business
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Author:Ross, Ian
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2005
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