UT Southwestern docs using South American tree to fight tumors

WFAA 8 – by Sonia Azad

DALLAS – Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have developed and are studying a drug derived from a tree in South America’s rain forests.

“The tree is beautiful,” said Dr. David Boothman, associate director for translational research at UT Southwestern Medical Center.  

635893475195617912-0125-tumor-fighting-tree-2.JPGThe 100-foot Pau D’Arco tree is attractive to researchers for more than its beauty. Its bark is being used in anti-tumor studies.

“[A] drug called betalapachone is in that bark at about 0.7 percent,” said Dr. Boothman, whose research in this area spans more than 30 years. “When we discovered it, we didn’t want people going down to chop the tree down, so we synthetically made it.”

Boothman said they have a patent on the synthetic version of the drug, which finds and kills cancer cells and leaves healthy cells behind. Enzymes on cancer tumors activate the drug.

“The bottom line is, it makes hydrogen peroxide,” Dr. Boothman said, “so it eventually disinfects the tumor.”

The drug is in the early stages of clinical trials aimed at offering more options to people with advanced, terminal pancreatic cancer, who tend to live only three or four months after diagnosis.

“So this one treatment strategy may open the door to other options,” said Dr. Muhammad Beg, an oncologist at UT Southwestern.

Researchers are studying the combination of the new drug with standard chemotherapy and have said, so far, the results are encouraging.

“Our data shows it’s the combination of these medications that work better than either one by themselves,” Dr. Beg said.

Aside from its cancer-fighting properties, you might find Pau D’arco herbal extract or teas on some store shelves. But the doctors we spoke to said not to expect those products to help fight cancer — yet.

“The moment you make the tea, you get rid of the active ingredient we’re talking about,” Dr. Boothman said.

Drinking the tea won’t have much of any effect in a healthy person. But, doctors are studying that, too, to determine if they can unearth even more benefits from a beautiful tree.


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