The magazine for Western Washington University

Can this beautiful flower help beat liver cancer?

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Forest and Kim Starr

The next weapon in the battle against liver cancer may be found in the fruits of the fragrant ylang-ylang tree.

But the problem is the chemical compound that’s shown promise in lab tests can only be found in small quantities in nature.

So WWU Chemistry Professor James Vyvyan and his students are working to find a way to synthesize larger quantities of the compound, cananodine.

Parts of the Cananga odorata (ylangylang) tree have been used in Asian folk medicine for centuries for maladies such as high blood pressure and skin problems. And its delicately fragrant essential oils are used in commercial products from shampoo to perfume.

But now, in-vitro testing of the compound has shown activity against two types of liver cancer cells.

Synthesizing the compound is an important step toward learning whether cananodine really can play a role in treating liver cancer, which is now very difficult to treat. Most chemotherapies for liver cancer don’t seem to increase survival times.

Vyvyan and his students are helped along by a $204,473 grant from the National Institutes of Health.