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Focus on Health: Oleander plant shows promise as cancer-fighter
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
By Dr. Karen Johnson / KHOU 11 News - Houston

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Oleander is a common Texas shrub that's known to be toxic in humans and animals.

The plant is also the basis of a new cancer-fighting drug that's showing great promise for the treatment of tumors.

About a third of our drugs come from plants. Taxol comes from the Chinese Yew tree and aspirin comes from the willow tree.

There is a 17-acre field west of San Antonio that is the largest oleander field in the world.

"We'll take the leaves and we'll de-horn the plant just like this. This makes the drug, " says Joel Curtis.

Curtis raises 10,000 plants not for nurseries, but for a biotechnology company that uses it to make a cancer-fighting drug. The leaves of the oleander are harvested for a unique molecule called "oleandrin."

"We know that the active ingredients get across into the brain, so tumors such as glioblastoma, certain prostate tumors and breast tumors have responded, as has colon cancer," says Robert Newman, Ph.D.

In the lab the drug is selective for tumor cells leaving, normal cells intact.

Grady Cage, who has prostate cancer that has spread to his hip bone, tested the drug. He found it especially helpful in tolerating the side effects of chemotherapy.

"In the last three cycles I was sick maybe once," he says.

Dr. Newman says studies in his lab show the oleander-based drug is especially effective against tumors that are resistant to chemotherapy. He thinks the drug will be taken with chemotherapy.

"We think this is a novel therapy with a novel target," he says.

"This is truly beyond a field of dreams. It is truly a field of life," says oleander field owner Curtis.

Researchers at M.D. Anderson Hospital are hopeful that these natural compounds will help change cancer from an acute disease to a chronic one, and enable a person to live a full and productive life.