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July 13, 2011

ULM professors see anticancer potential in the most unlikely sources – tobacco leaves

Public campaigns have heightened our awareness of the adverse health effects stemming from excessive tobacco use.

What is not so well known is that fresh tobacco leaves may possess certain useful anticancer compounds, according to Dr. Khalid El Sayed, an Associate Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the ULM College of Pharmacy.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office recently awarded El Sayed and ULM colleagues Drs. Paul Sylvester and Girish Shah a patent for their discovery of anticancer prototype compounds, which are found in the waxy substance on fresh tobacco leaves and which show potential for controlling metastic breast and prostate cancers.

"The leaf and flower of Nicotiana tabacum, as tobacco is scientifically known, contain high amounts of the key flavor ingredient called cembranoids. Interestingly, cembranoid ingredients of tobacco show great promise as anticancer agents," he said.

El Sayed noted that nature still provides the single most important source of drugs or drug precursors.

About half of all modern pharmaceutical agents are derived from, or are modeled on, natural products, according to El Sayed.

"The high incidence and death rate of breast and prostate cancer types emphasize the need for new strategies," El Sayed said.

"Since anticancer drugs are associated with severe side effects, researchers are compelled to find and develop new and effective anticancer lead compounds."

For inspiration, El Sayed looked at several marine soft-bodied corals, which also protect themselves against natural predators through their ability to produce large amounts of cembranoids.

"These marine cembranoids are known for their anticancer activity," he said. "Since the leaf and flower cuticular wax of tobacco are rich in cembranoids, and also act as a chemical defense to protect the plant against insects and harmful microbial infections, we believed that natural, fresh tobacco ingredients would offer the greatest potential as an anticancer agent."

El Sayed said tobacco leaves are grown and eventually degraded to smaller compounds, providing various tobacco flavors during the processing and fermentation of tobacco for commercial use.

El Sayed and his team of researchers are in collaboration with Professor Pedro Ferchmin of Universidad Central del Caribe School of Medicine, Puerto Rico, regarding the neuroprotective activity of the tobacco compounds.

A consortium agreement is in place and they intend to submit a joint National Institutes of Health proposal by this fall.

This group has also patented tobacco cembranoids for possible use to control tobacco addiction, help in smoking cessation and other neurodegenerative diseases, said El Sayed.

"Fresh tobacco contains both harmful and useful ingredients," said El Sayed.

"Developing tobacco as a source of pharmaceutically useful compounds will make better use of this economically relevant agricultural crop."

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