In a new study, researchers have discovered the chemical, miyabeacin, in humble willows.
The compound has been found to kill various cancer cells, including those resistant to other drugs.
In laboratory tests, miyabeacin was also found to be effective against several breast, throat and ovarian cancer cell lines.
Of particular excitement is its activity against neuroblastoma, a hard to treat and common childhood cancer where the overall survival rate is below 50%.
The research was conducted by scientists led by a team at Rothamsted Research.
The use of willow bark in medicine was recorded by ancient Greek, Assyrian and Egyptian civilisations, but the first scientifically reported investigation of willow as a remedy for fever was in 1763.
In 1897 the Bayer Company produced the synthetic analogue, aspirin (acetylsalicylate), one of the earliest and most successful nature-inspired drugs.
The team says whilst the pharmaceutical activity of salicin, the active ingredient in aspirin, is well known, the pharmacological properties of miyabeacin are potentially even greater.
In the study, they tested miyabeacin against a range of cancer cell lines.
Initial cell viability assays were carried out on a neuroblastoma cell line established from a stage 4 neuroblastoma patient, and a drug resistant sub-line.
The team says with resistance to treatment being a significant issue in cancers such as neuroblastoma, new drugs with novel modes of action are required and miyabeacin perhaps offers a new opportunity in this respect.
Structurally, it contains two salicin groups that give it a potential ‘double dose’ of anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting ability that associated with aspirin.
The results reporting the activity of miyabeacin against a number of cancer cell lines, including cell lines with acquired drug resistance, adds further evidence for the multi-faceted pharmacology of willow.
After brain cancers, neuroblastoma is the most frequent solid tumor seen in the under-fives.
The team says the next steps are to scale up the production of miyabeacin from farmed willow and provide more material for further medical testing.
One author of the study is Prof Mike Beale.
The study is published in Scientific Reports.
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