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Production of Anti-Cancer Drug, Taxol, Could Get a Boost

By Hank Becker
March 30, 1999

WASHINGTON, March 30–Thanks to new research, taxol, a powerful but expensive anti-cancer drug, could become more plentiful in the future, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said today.

USDA researchers have developed a new process for producing taxol from lab-cultured cells of its increasingly scarce natural source, the yew tree. The new process is 100 times more productive than the original process for deriving taxol, which was patented by USDA in 1991.

“By learning more about plants, we are helping to speed production and increase availability of a medicine vital to human health,” said Glickman.

Taxol is a potent chemotherapy drug for breast, ovarian, lung and other cancers. About 6,700 pounds of bark from rare yew trees are needed to produce a pound of the taxol drug. Now, USDA plant physiologist Donna Gibson and her research colleagues have invented a new process for using lab-cultured yew cells to produce the drug.

USDA has applied for patent protection on the new process for producing taxol. If use of this new source of taxol is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and proves medically effective, far less yew tree bark would be required as a source for the drug. Anti-cancer drugs based on the process could be available within a few years.

The new process was invented by Gibson, of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service Plant, Soil, and Nutrition Research Laboratory in Ithaca, N.Y.; Raymond E. B. Ketchum at Washington State University, Pullman; and Michael L. Shuler at the Cornell Research Foundation, Inc., in Ithaca. Gibson and colleagues were among the first scientists to show that taxol can be produced in yew cell cultures.

An article on the research appears in the April issue of the ARS monthly magazine Agricultural Research and is available on the World Wide Web at:


Scientific contact: Donna M. Gibson, Plant Protection Research Unit, U.S. Plant, Soil and Nutrition Research Laboratory, Agricultural Research Service, USDA, Ithaca, N.Y., phone (607) 255-2359, dmg6@