New research led by Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre has revealed how a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine produces compounds which may help to treat cancer and liver diseases.
The Chinese skullcap, Scutellaria baicalensis – otherwise known in Chinese medicine as Huang-Qin – is traditionally used as a treatment for fever, liver and lung complaints.
Previous research on cells cultured in the lab has shown that certain compounds called flavones, found in the roots of this plant, not only have beneficial anti-viral and anti-oxidant effects, but they can also kill human cancers while leaving healthy cells untouched. In live animal models, these flavones have also halted tumour growth, offering hope that they may one day lead to effective cancer treatments, or even cures.
As a group of compounds, the flavones are relatively well understood. But the beneficial flavones found in Huang-Qin roots, such as wogonin and baicalin, are different: a missing – OH (hydroxyl) group in their chemical structure left scientists scratching their heads as to how they were made in the plant.