Daffodils may contain a cancer-killing compound


In many parts of the world, the daffodil is a symbol of hope in the fight against cancer, but now the flower could take on a more proactive role. Researchers at the Université libre de Bruxelles (ULB) in Belgium have found that an alkaloid extracted from daffodils can help shut down the "nanomachines" that tumors exploit to grow out of control.

The natural world is full of potential cancer-killers, and so far our arsenal contains compounds and molecules harvested from grapes and berries, annatto seeds, olive oil, and even sea snail eggs. The newest natural compound to join the ranks is an alkaloid known as haemanthamine, commonly found in daffodils.

Ribosomes are a complex of molecules found in all cells, and they're sometimes referred to as nanomachines because they synthesize all of the proteins our cells need. Since tumors are essentially just cells that are growing out of control, they can hijack ribosomes to ramp up protein production.

But this mechanism might also be cancer's weakness. After extracting haemanthamine from daffodils, the ULB researchers found that the compound attacked cancer in several ways at once. First, it stopped ribosomes from producing proteins, which slowed down the growth of the tumor.

Further up the line, it even stopped ribosomes themselves from being produced. Not only does that also slow the cancer's growth, but it triggers a stress response in an anti-tumor surveillance pathway. A protein known as p53, which normally is continuously degrading away in healthy cells, is suddenly stabilized, causing a quick cell death.

While the results are intriguing, it's still very early days. More work will need to go into making sure any treatment based on this technique will only target cancerous cells and not healthy ones. To pick the best candidate for further development, the researchers plan to test four other daffodil-derived alkaloids to see if they have similar effects.