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Plant-Based Synthesized Agent Efficiently Kills Pancreatic Tumors in Mice

Scientists derive and test a new drug derived from a plant product used in Chinese medicine.

Pancreas Illustration from Grey's Anatomy (1918)-- by Lina Zeldovich

The Gist

Pancreatic cancer is a rare disease, but with a survival rate of four to five percent, it’s one of the worst cancers known to exist. The National Cancer Institute estimates that almost 44,000 people get pancreatic cancer every year and over 37,000 of them die. With a median survival of six months for metastatic disease, only 17 percent of patients live more a year and a half after their diagnosis.  

The most common form of pancreatic cancer, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinomas (PDAs), are very aggressive, spread rapidly, and are often found at a late stage because they don’t create early symptoms. As the traditional chemotherapy agent, gemcitabine, has not been very efficient, scientists continue searching for effective therapeutic strategies. 

Two recent studies found that a plant-based alternative has been effective in killing pancreatic tumors in mice. 

The Expert Take

A study performed by Rohit Chugh and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota has successfully synthesized a plant-based drug called minnelide (named after Minnesota), which they derived from triptolide, a natural plant product which has been used for a long time in traditional Chinese medicine. Tripterygium wilfordii, known as thunder god vine (lei gong teng), has been shown to be efficient in alleviating symptoms of arthritis, fever, and other illnesses. According to their research, the plant also appears to effectively fight pancreatic tumors in mice. Pancreatic cancer cells possess a large amount of protective protein called HSP70, which makes tumors resistant to drugs. Triptolide appears to have the ability to inhibit that protein.

Because triptolide is not water-soluble, it has been hard to use for therapy in the human body. To circumvent this problem, scientists modified the agent, creating its water-soluble analog, minnelide, which they successfully tested in mice. “Minnelide was highly effective in reducing pancreatic tumor growth and spread, and improving survival,” the authors wrote. “Our results suggest that minnelide shows promise as a potent chemotherapeutic agent against pancreatic cancer.” 

Among other experiments, the scientists implanted pieces of human pancreatic tumors into mice and were able to successfully eliminate them with minnelide. “Tumors that averaged 300 cubic millimeters became clinically undetectable after 40 days of treatment and remained so even after 65 days off therapy,” Dr. Sunil R. Hingorani at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who was not involved in the research, commented on the study results. “Even more impressively, 1000 cubic millimeter tumors could also be eradicated, this time within 35 days.”

Source and Method

The scientists tested minnelide both in vitro and in various preclinical models, including mice tumors and patient's tumors transplanted into mice.  Minnelide was found to be highly effective in treating pancreatic cancer in all such models.

Minnelide was synthesized in a multi-phase chemical reaction process from its original compound triptolide. The process took over five days and resulted in formation of the end product, which was derived in a form of a white powder.

The Takeaway

Pancreatic adenocarcinomas remain one of the most lethal human malignancies. Gemcitabine, the current standard of care for pancreatic cancer, does not sufficiently increase survival rates. Triptolide, an anti-inflammatory natural compound derived from Tripterygium wilfordii, has been shown to be extremely effective in killing cancer cells, but has not been clinically used due to its insolvability in water. As scientists have successfully synthesized its water-soluble analog, minnelide, new treatment possibilities for pancreatic adenocarcinomas may be underway. “Our studies suggest that minnelide is more effective when compared to other potential therapeutics against pancreatic cancer, which have been tested in mouse models,” the authors wrote.

Other Studies and Facts

Pancreatic cancer: facts, symptoms and current treatment options

New reports show cancer death rates have been declining since the early 1990s

Studies compare traditional pancreatic cancer treatments to new therapy regimens

Scientists identify potential links between sugar-sweetened soft drinks and risk of pancreatic cancer

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Tags: Latest Studies & Research , Treatments

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.