Are Daffodils the key to beating cancer?

By Nicholas Persaud

Daffodils may be something you plant in your garden or perhaps put in a bouquet of flowers for a loved one. However, research suggests that daffodils have much more to offer than their appearance. Daffodils have been used for multiple medicinal purposes including treating asthma and inducing vomiting. More recently, research has unveiled the prospect of daffodils as anti-cancer agents. The RNA Molecular Biology Laboratory at the Université Libre de Bruxelles Cancer Research Center recently published a paper entitled “The Amaryllidaceae Alkaloid Haemanthamine Binds the Eukaryotic Ribosome to Repress Cancer Cell Growth”, which describes the potential for daffodils to prevent cancer cell proliferation. To be more specific, scientists in this laboratory extracted the compound haemanthamine from daffodils. Haemanthamine is an alkaloid which means that it is a chemical compound produced by a living organism.  The researchers concluded that haemanthamine inhibits both the activity and production of ribosomes. It is this function of haemanthamine that makes it such a strong contender as an anti-cancer agent. To fully understand the value of this function, one must understand the purpose of the ribosome and the nucleolus.

The ribosome is responsible for translation of mRNA molecules to proteins. In other words, if the ribosome does not function correctly then essential proteins cannot be synthesized in the body. Like normal cells, cancer cells require proteins to function. Therefore, interfering with ribosome function can directly prevent cancer cell proliferation. Haemanthamine binds to a specific site on the ribosome called the A-site cleft. In doing so, it pauses translation of mRNA. Ribosomes are also produced in the nucleolus, and haemanthamine prevents the nucleolus from producing ribosomes by eliciting a nucleolar stress response. According to the research paper, when this nucleolar stress response is activated, a protein called p53 takes action. This protein plays an important role in cell death, also known as apoptosis. Therefore, haemanthamine indirectly triggers apoptosis in cells through the nucleolus. This is especially important when it comes to cancer cells because they generally do not undergo apoptosis. Cancer cells grow rapidly and override the signals that would otherwise force them to undergo cell death. This results in the formation of tumors, and eventually, the cancerous cells can spread throughout the body via a process known as metastasis. Haemanthamine, however, can prevent this from occurring by inducing the nucleolar stress response in cancer cells.

While these information is valuable, it does not mean that haemanthamine in and of itself is a viable solution, the simple reason being that normal healthy cells also require ribosomal synthesis and translation of mRNA to function. So, while haemanthamine can effectively kill cancer cells it can similarly kill healthy cells. That is why this research paper focused on studying the structure of heamanthamine. By understanding the structure through X-ray crystallography, the researchers hope to create a molecule with a similar function to that of haemanthamine but with reduced negative effects. Interestingly enough, some of the most common treatments of cancer share the quality of being a double-edged sword. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy are examples of cancer treatments that are effective against cancer cells but simultaneously affect healthy cells. As a result, these treatments usually have many unpleasant side effects. For the patients’ sake, it is important that researchers attempt to develop new methods of treatment with little to no side effects. This is easier said than done. Nonetheless, applications of haemanthamine may prove to be an effective treatment against cancer in the near future despite its potential negative side effects.

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