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Discovery of Taxol Drug in Hazelnuts Could Mean Less Cost for Breast Cancer Patients (dateline April 4, 2000)

Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol), a drug commonly used to treat breast cancer , has been found by chance in hazelnuts. Dr. Angela M. Hoffman of the University of Portland, Oregon, made the discovery while investigating a plant disease called the Eastern Filbert Blight. The finding could mean less expensive Taxol prices for breast cancer patients.

Taxol is currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat both early and late stage breast cancer. The drug is also used to treat ovarian cancer , certain types of lung cancer, and Kaposi’s sarcoma (a cancer that begins as soft, brownish, or purple nodules on the feet and spreads through the skin to the lymph nodes and abdominal organs). Recent clinical trials have also shown that Taxol could be effective in treating polycystic kidney disease, multiple sclerosis , Alzheimer’s disease, psoriasis, and other diseases.

Dr. Hoffman discovered Taxol by grinding up plant material from various trees known to be resistant to the blight she was investigating and comparing them to trees that were prone to the blight. Dr. Hoffman noticed that the resistant trees contained large amounts of a chemical that resembled Taxol. After three years of investigation, tests confirm the presence of Taxol in the leaves, stems, and raw nuts of hazelnut trees. Interestingly, Taxol was first isolated in 1967 from the Pacific yew tree, a tree found in parts of the U.S. Pacific Northwest.

Up to now, Bristol-Myers Squibb Company has been the sole manufacturer of Taxol. However, a federal judge has recently ruled against certain provisions in the company’s patent on Taxol which could lead to the sale of less expensive generic forms of Taxol by other drug companies. Dr. Hoffman says that the amount of Taxol in hazelnut trees is only about one-tenth of that found in Pacific yew trees, but the way in which the drug is extracted for clinical use is similar.

Though the discovery could lead to less expensive Taxol prescriptions, Dr. Hoffman says that consuming hazelnuts or hazelnut-flavored products such as tea, coffee, or candy would probably not have any significant medical benefit against breast cancer or other diseases.

The drug Taxol is called a mitotic inhibitor because it interferes with cells during mitosis (cell division). In 1992, Taxol was approved by the FDA to treat advanced (metastatic) breast cancer. In 1999, the FDA also approved Taxol to treat early stage breast cancer in patients who had already received chemotherapy with the drug, doxorubicin (brand name Adriamycin). Taxol is usually given intravenously (through the vein) over one or more hours.

Possible side effects of Taxol include:

  • A reduced white blood cell count (myelosuppression)
  • Hair loss (alopecia)
  • Numbness in the extremities (peripheral neuropathy)