African bush could hold key for new therapy to kill cells of common cancer

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A BUSH found only in parts of Africa could hold a key to killing cells of a common cancer, scientists in Yorkshire reveal today.

Phyllanthus engleri, also known as spurred phyllanthus, grows in Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

Named after Prof Heinrich Engler, former director of Berlin’s Royal Botanical Gardens, who launched extensive exploration of plantlife in Africa, some parts are used as food or in traditional therapies and other parts may be toxic. Previous work has shown it contains a chemical, Englerin A, which kills kidney cancer cells, but the reason remained unclear.

Now a research team led by Prof David Beech, of the School of Medicine at Leeds University, has discovered very small amounts of the chemical activate two proteins which trigger changes in renal cancer cells, killing them. Some 10,000 cases of kidney cancer are diagnosed a year in the UK.

Prof Beech said: “This unexpected discovery is exciting because it means we could develop new cancer drugs towards these particular proteins.

“Englerin A is particularly interesting because it is selective – it only kills renal cancer cells and a few other types of cancer cell.”

Co-author Prof Herbert Waldmann, director at the Max Planck Institute in Dortmund, Germany, said: “Renal cancer is a devastating disease crying out for novel and innovative therapeutic approaches. The discovery of how Englerin A works and its protein target gives hope that new opportunities for treating this cancer can be found.”