WILLOW trees could provide the source of a new cancer drug, a new study suggests.

Scientists have discovered an anti-cancer compound in the stems and leaves of willows - more than a century after the trees gave us aspirin.

The potential new drug could help fight several childhood cancers as well as breast, throat and ovarian cancers.

The bark contains salicin - a compound similar to aspirin - which has long been used to relieve pain, inflammation and fever. A synthetic version was created in 1897 which gave us aspirin - one of the earliest and most successful nature-inspired drugs.

Now, British-based researchers at Rothamsted Research and the University of Kent have found another use for the humble willow.

They discovered the chemical miyabeacin which has been found to kill various cancer cells, including those resistant to other drugs.

The team tested miyabeacin against a range of cancer cell lines including those established from a stage 4 patient.

Analysis found the chemical fights against neuroblastoma - a hard to treat childhood cancer where overall survival rate is below 50 per cent.

After brain cancers, neuroblastoma is the most frequent solid tumour seen in under fives.

Miyabeacin was also effective against several breast, throat and ovarian cancer cell lines.

Study co-leader Professor Mike Beale, from Rothamsted Research, said the pharmaceutical uses of salicin - the active ingredient in aspirin - are well known, but the potential of miyabeacin is even greater.

Professor Beale said: “With resistance to treatment being a significant issue in cancers such as neuroblastoma, new drugs with novel modes of action are required and miyabeacin perhaps offers a new opportunity in this respect.

“Structurally, it contains two salicin groups that give it a potential ‘double dose’ of anti-inflammatory and anti-blood clotting ability that we associate with aspirin.

“However, our results reporting the activity of miyabeacin against a number of cancer cell lines, including cell lines with acquired drug resistance, adds further evidence for the multi-faceted pharmacology of willow.”

Study co-leader Dr Jane Ward puts the cancer breakthrough down to the Rothamsted Research collection of 1,500 willow species and hybrids. The centre is home to the UK’s National Willow Collection where experts can screen the trees with state of the art techniques.

Dr Ward added: “Possibly because of the success of aspirin, medicinal assessment of other salicinoids in willow has been mostly neglected by modern science, and the National Willow Collection has proven to be a gold-mine of exciting new chemistry, that perhaps underlies its position in ancient therapies.”

This story first appeared in The Herald.

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £69 for 1 year - or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link: https://www.forestryjournal.co.uk/subscribe/

Thanks – and stay safe.