Another fruitful source of natural medicines is plants. Many have already proved their value and there is a huge untapped potential for further discoveries, since more than 90 percent of the world's half million plant species have never been tested for their pharmaceutical value. Only 120 prescription drugs worldwide are based on extracted plant products.
Taxol, an anticancer drug made from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, is a recent and much-publicized example of a valuable plant-derived drug. Taxol is currently undergoing clinical trials for treating a variety of cancers, but the major difficulty for researchers has been to obtain the drug in sufficient quantities. Pacific yews are slow growing and rare, and the drug-extraction process is time consuming. The taxol molecule has been made synthetically, but the process is not commercially viable. An alternative method being developed is to chemically convert a similar molecule produced by common yew trees.
A more efficient way to produce natural plant drugs in large quantities would be by using recombinant DNA
techniques, but far less research has been carried out on the genetics and biochemistry of plants than of microbes or animal cells. To date, microorganisms are still the main tools bioengineers use to turn out pharmaceutical products.
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