Finding treasure in toxic waste: potential anti-cancer drugs isolated in cesspool



Nutritional polyphenol antioxidants have have been enjoying a renaissance of sorts in the arena of cancer drug development, and the evidence of the downstream ripples lies in the long list of results that a quick googling of “antioxidants + cancer” yields.  So naturally (heh heh), my interest was piqued when I saw the following headline:  “In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland.”

The opening paragraphs:

BUTTE, Mont. — Death sits on the east side of this city, a 40-billion-gallon pit filled with corrosive water the color of a scab. On the opposite side sits the small laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, whose stacks of plastic Petri dishes are smeared with organisms pulled from the pit. Early tests indicate that some of those organisms may help produce the next generation of cancer drugs.

From death’s soup, the Stierles hope to coax life.

Creepy stuff, huh?  The life-giving properties of “death’s soup,” as described by Christopher Maag of the New York Times earlier this month, are the results of recent findings by Donald and Andrea Stierle.  The Stierles, a husband and wife time of scientists at Montana Tech of the University of Montana, have been hard at work for the last few years isolating extremely hardy compounds from the Berkley Pit Lake which previously served as one of the world’s largest copper mines before it was abandoned in the 1980’s.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? Well, don’t discount the power of observation and some elbow grease — the Stierles were the first to publish the presence of taxol, a chemotherapeutic commonly used to treat breast and ovarian cancer, in a fungus that was often found next to yew trees, the only other source of taxol.  

The Stierles named two bioactive metabolites that they found in the Berkley pit by the very catchy names of Berkeleydione and Berkleytrione which they first described in 2004 in the journal Organic Letters.  Another metabolites, Berkelic acid is the source of recent interest as it has been found to have selective anticancer activity in ovarian cancer cells.  The findings were published in the the Journal of Organic Chemistry.

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